AFTER what seemed to take forever to arrive, Sheffield Steelers finally got their Elite League title defence up and running at the weekend.
But it proved to be a far from easy opening for Paul Thompson’s team in Scotland on Saturday night as they had to fight off several fightbacks by hosts Dundee Stars – the team who finished bottom of the league last season – before prevailing 6-5 in overtime on Tayside.
Last night saw the South Yorkshire club return to action in Group B of the Challenge Cup.
But that wasn’t much easier either, with a reformed Manchester Storm proving obstinate opponents at Sheffield Arena before the hosts emerged 3-1 winners – their third goal an empty net strike in the final minute.
That result ensured they went top of Group B with three games remaining in a competition which they will look to go one better in than last year when they were edged out by Cardiff Devils – the only team to beat them so far this season – in the final.
Last night, no doubt due to a seven-and-a-half hour bus trip back from Scotland, the Steelers started sluggishly, but still contrived to open the scoring, the talismanic Tyler Mosienko firing past Zane Kalemba at 14.28.
That was how it stayed until the latter stages of the second period when Jace Coyle doubled the home side’s lead at 37.37 with his second of the campaign.
But any thoughts the Steelers entertained of having it all their own way disappeared in the final 10 minutes when Matt Caria halved the advantage with a powerplay strike for player-coach Omar Pacha’s team.
Further pressure followed from the visitors but, after pulling Kalemba with just over a minute remaining, they paid the price when Mike Duco slotted the puck into the empty net to seal a fifth straight win for the home side.
“It took us until the last six or seven minutes of the first period against Manchester to get into our stride,” said Thompson afterwards.
“Every team in the league has to put up with long travel throughout the season and we’ve got a lot of new players who, perhaps, aren’t used to what we did on Saturday night.
“We knew Manchester was going to be a tricky game – they skate well and they move the puck well – but I felt we took over in the final two thirds of the game.
“On Saturday, we were sloppy at times against Dundee and they were a good enough team to capitalise on that.
“We took the lead four times, but each time they came back and levelled.
“We had four or five players who perhaps weren’t at their normal high standards, but we still found a way to win and that’s where the character of the team comes through.
“I think the club lost both games up there last year.
“Against Manchester, even when they got it back to 2-1, I didn’t think we were ever in a position where we were going to give up the lead.”
In Dundee, Russ Moyer was credited with the game-winning goal when it came at 62.45.
The Stars, coached by former Steelers’ player and assistant coach Marc Lefebvre, had taken an early lead through John Dolan, but the visitors went in ahead at the end of the first period through strikes from Colton Fretter and defenceman Rod Sarich.
But it was to prove a night where the Steelers could never pull far enough away from their resilient hosts, who levelled at 21.30 through Bobby Chaumont.
Captain Jonathan Phillips then put the Steelers 3-2 ahead close to the halfway mark before the Stars levelled for a second time just under five minutes later via the stick of Jason Gray.
Mosienko made it 4-3 at 37.37, only for Brett Switzer to level up early in the third.
With just over 10 minutes remaining, Ben O’Connor put the visitors ahead for a fourth time but, as had become the norm, Justin Faryna’s strike saw Dundee haul themselves level again, only to finally be denied through Moyer’s overtime heroics.