SHEFFIELD STEELERS sent a timely reminder to their Elite League title rivals after crushing Hull Stingrays 9-2.
In what is effectively now a three-horse race for the regular season championship, leaders Braehead Clan are due at Ice Sheffield on Wednesday night for a final meeting of the regular season against Gerad Adams’s team.
Steelers also play host to third-placed Cardiff Devils three times before the play-offs kick in, the South Wales club two points behind with both teams having eight games remaining.
Two defeats in as many nights for Nottingham Panthers - the first at Braehead in Friday night’s live TV clash – has all but ended their hopes of regaining the crown they first won in 2013, while Belfast Giants know one more win for the Gardiner Conference champions will finally end their dwindling hopes.
Steelers could welcome Braehead to South Yorkshire this week just one point adrift, should they beat an improving Coventry Blaze tonight and their Scottish rivals – who have played one game more – lose at home to Fife Flyers.
In Hull on Saturday night, the result was never in doubt, particularly in a third period which saw the rampant visitors score five unanswered goals.
The Steelers were 2-0 ahead just after the 10-minute mark when Ben O’Connor’s effort followed Colton Fretter’s opener 53 seconds earlier.
The reliable Jordan Mayer halved the deficit with his 26th of the season at 15.08, but the Steelers’ restored their two-goal lead through talismanic Mathiue Roy just 39 seconds later.
In a more evenly-matched second period, Hull again got back to within one, this time through Sam Towner just before the halfway mark, but the Steelers were 4-2 ahead at the end of the middle section thanks to a powerplay strike from Tyler Mosienko at 34.02.
Any hopes Hull entertained of coming back again were dashed after goals from Jeff Legue’s strike at 44.25 was followed quickly by Mike Forney’s 35th goal of the season 52 seconds later.
It became 7-2 at 50.40 through Fretter’s second of the game, a powerplay strike, while Roy made sure he matched Forney’s tally for the season with his second marker, O’Connor also doubling up on the night a minute later to complete the scoring. It reflected a dominant period for the visitors, who outshot their hosts 25-6 and 53-21 on the night and it completed a 4-0 series sweep over Hull.
A deflated Hull – 3-2 losers at Belfast the night before - need to regroup in order to get something out of Sunday night’s clash with bottom club Dundee Stars, a game player-coach Omar Pacha described as a “must-win.”
“This is disappointing and, to be honest, it’s just a night to forget,” said Pacha. “I don’t mind losing - but not like that.
“We knew it was going to be a challenging weekend but we have to go again for what is a massive game against Dundee.
“It is a really important game for us and one we simply have to win.”