Sheffield Steelers share the scoring load as they strive to keep Elite League title hopes alive

CONFIDENT: Sheffield Steelers' captain, Jonathan Phillips, in action during last week's 8-0 hammering of Belfast Giants. Picture: Dean Woolley.

THEY may be without three of their most prolific points scorers, but Sheffield Steelers are far from feeling the pinch.

Wednesday night’s 6-2 win in the first leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final against holders Cardiff Devils took the Steelers goal tally to 33 in their last five games - eight of them coming in last Sunday’s stunning win over title rivals Belfast Giants.

Long-term injured John Armstrong and Rob Dowd have been absent for all that time, while Colton Fretter has been missing for the last three. In all, the three have contributed 111 points this season, including 50 goals.

But a big strength of any team is their depth and Paul Thompson has been finding out just how deep his squad actually does go these past weeks, in fact since just before Christmas with only two defeats suffered in the last 13 games.

Levi Nelson (16 goals plus 25 assists), Andreas Valdix (10+29), Mathieu Roy (18+17) and Matt Marquardt (20+11) have all posted over 30 points, while defencemen Ben O'Connor (13+33) and Mark Matheson (8+33) lead the way overall in terms of points.

The Elite League title remains Cardiff’s to lose, Andrew Lord’s side who, before Friday night's clash in Belfast, were sitting top of the standings, 13 points clear of fifth-placed Steelers, who have two games in hand.

But the Steelers have a chance to keep their title hopes alive with a rare home double-header which sees Nottingham Panthers visit Sheffield Arena on Saturday night, before third-placed Manchester Storm call on Sunday.

Steelers captain Jonathan Phillips said he was pleased but not surprised to see the scoring spread around the team in the absence of the the missing Armstrong, Dowd and Fretter.

“Everybody is stepping up,” said Phillips, who has 17 points to his name in 46 appearances this season, including five goals. “But I think that is something we’ve often had as a team in Sheffield - players stepping up when they need to.

“It’s just down to the way we are playing at the moment. We were determined not to let things slip when we returned from the Continental Cup Final, which we did after coming home from the previous round.

MISSING IN ACTION: Star forward Colton Fretter has missed the last three games through injury. Picture: Dean Woolley.

“We had an extra day off when we got back this time and then we were right back at it. We’re confident and on a good run.”

Meanwhile, the Steelers are set to welcome home four former title-winning players before the end of season.

Fredrik Vestberg, Kent Simpson, Marec Pinc and Guillaume Desbiens have all helped the Steelers lift league and/or play-off trophies in recent years and will be welcomed back onto the Sheffield Arena ice.

Swedish forward Vestberg helped the Steelers win the 2016 Elite League title under Thompson, scoring 12 goals and 38 points in his only season with the club. He will visit Sheffield for the game against Guildford Flames on February 17.

Grand Slam winner Kent Simpson will be present for the re-arranged league game against Cardiff Devils on February 21 - the former forward having enjoyed three spells with the Steelers, first winning the Grand Slam in 2001 before returning to help the club lift the league title in 2003 and the Knockout Cup in 2006.

Another former goalie, Marec Pinc, who arrived midway through the 2015-16 season and made the No 1 jersey his own, helped the Steelers retain their league title. He will be present when the Steelers take on Fife Flyers on February 25.

ABSENT: John Armstrong will miss most of the remainder of the season. Picture: Dean Woolley.

And Guillaume Desbiens, who scored a memorable play-off semi-final winner against Nottingham Panthers at Sheffield Arena - as well as helping the team win the league the previous season - will return to the scene of perhaps his greatest moment in a Steelers shirt when, fittingly, the Panthers visit South Yorkshire on March 17.

Steelers' owner Tony Smith said: "We like to welcome back and thank former players for their services. We think the club's fans will enjoy the opportunity of seeing some of their former heroes again."

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