SHEFFIELD STEELERS ensured their season would last for a further week by reaching the Elite League play-off semi-finals – but their path to the National Ice Centre proved anything but simple.
A 9-7 margin of victory over the course of two legs may seem relatively comfortable for Paul Thompson’s team, but Guildford Flames made life extremely difficult over two nights for the five-time polay-off champions.
Thompson anticipated a tough weekend against Paul Dixon’s players and that is exactly what he got, the Surrey-based club proving particularly obstructive on Saturday night before a moment of magic from John Armstrong eventually got the hosts ahead in the tie.
The Steelers went on to win the home leg 5-2 overall, giving themselves a healthy advantage ahead of the return leg 24 hours later.
And, with 19 minutes remaining in Guildford, the Steelers were seemingly home and dry with an aggregate lead of 9-4, thanks to goals from Armstrong, Mark Matheson, Colton Fretter and Eric Neiley.
But Guildford came out fighting in the final period, reducing the deficit to 9-6 within three minutes.
The Steelers held firm, however, despite being outshot 43-27 overall and although a 60th-minute strike from the Flames’ Ben Davies put his side ahead 5-4 on the night, it proved no more than a consolation for a team who have impresssed so much in their first-ever season in the EIHL.
After celebrating a hard-fought win, defending play-off champions the Steelers then had to wait a few minutes before finding out that they would meet arch-rivals Notingham Panthers in the second semi-final at the National Ice Centre.
The first semi-final will be between regular season league title winners Cardiff Devils and Fife Flyers, who overturned a three-goal deficit from their first leg against Manchester Storm to book a trip to the NIC with an overtime winner on the road.
The Devils returned home from their Friday night trip to Coventry Blaze with a convincing 4-2 victory, but were given an almighty scare 48 hours later when Danny Stewart’s team raced into a 3-1 lead by the end of the second period.
But the Devils powered back with goals from Josh Batch, matt Pope and Justin Faryna to book their place in Nottingham.
The Panthers continued their bid to send long-serving head coach Corey Neilson out on a high by making the last four in dramatic style.
Having lost the first leg against Belfast Giants 4-3 on Friday, the Panthers needed an overtime winner from Dan Spang to book an eagerly-anticipated last four clash with the Steelers.
RESULTS: Cardiff Devils 4 Coventry Blaze 3 (Devils won 8-5 on aggregate); Guildford Flames 5 Sheffield Steelers 4 (Steelers won 9-7 on agg); Manchester Storm 1 Fife Flyers 5 (Flyers win in OT and 6-5 on agg); Nottingham Panthers 5 Belfast Giants 3 (Panthers win in OT and 8-7 on agg).