IN TERMS of mission objectives, phase one has been accomplished by Sheffield Steelers.
Soon after taking over as head coach of the South Yorkshire club, Tom Barrasso set himself and his players the primary goal of simply making the play-offs.
A comfortable 5-1 win over an under-strength Milton Keynes Lightning in front of another impressive 7,000-plus crowd on Saturday night was – combined with results elsewhere – enough to guarantee the Steelers a place in the post-season.
However, the next objective – winning the playoffs – will prove far, far tougher to pull off.
Sunday night’s 5-1 defeat against a Belfast Giants side still clinging to dwindling league title hopes probably didn’t come as much of a surprise but, with only one regular season game remaining – a Sunday night trip to bottom club Lightning – the Steelers can now plan for one last big push.
The campaign has brought more than its fair share of lows for the five-time Elite League champions but, in recent weeks, there has been a slowly rising wave of optimism creeping in among some fans, perhaps explaining in part the big crowds being drawn to Sheffield Arena despite a long-running set of largely indifferent results.
Still no matter what has already gone, two-time Stanley Cup champion Barrasso only has thoughts for the immediate future, targetting a convincing win at Milton Keynes in order to enhance the growing confidence he senses among his roster.
“At the end of the day, regardless of the outcome in the last game, my job as the coach is to get us mentally prepared and to be positive about our group going into the playoffs, regardless of whatever position we finish in,” said Barrasso.
“When we play whoever it will be in the first round of the playoffs it is really just about us having the belief and confidence in what we do as a group and then trying to execute that as best we can.
“We’ve been extremely focused on getting into the playoff picture. That was the primary goal that I set for us a while back because there was obviously no guarantee of that.
When we play whoever it will be in the first round of the playoffs it is really just about us having the belief and confidence in what we do as a groupTom Barrasso
“We talked about all the points being valuable. How many I felt we needed to pick up I kept to myself, but the idea that we needed to fight for all those points was made clear to the players.
“And with the exception of the game down in Cardiff I think we’ve done a really good job of that and it’s been a strong finish.”
The Steelers’ triumph over the Lightning on Saturday was assured after they got themselves 4-0 up after the first period.
Rob Dowd was twice on target, split by a Josh McFadden strike, before Brandon Whistle scored his first-ever professional goal.
Captain Jonathan Phillips added a fifth in the second period, with a neat finish from Georgs Golovkovs providing consolation for a Lightning team short on numbers but big on spirit and who are set to say goodbye to the league after just two difficult seasons.
It was almost a case of role reversal in Belfast 24 hours later, with a third period consolation strike from the stick of defenceman Ryan Martinelli against his former club all that the Steelers had to show for their efforts.
By that stage, the Giants were 5-0 ahead trying to repair the damage done by a 5-2 defeat at Manchester Storm on Friday night which only strengthened Cardiff Devils’ claims for a third straight title.
Having beaten Manchester 4-0 at home on Saturday, leaders the Devils were then beaten 3-1 on the road last night by a Dundee Stars team desperately trying to clinch the last available playoff spot.
But the Devils still enter the final week of action four points clear of Belfast who, while having played one game less, probably know they will run out of time. Should that prove to be the case, it is likely that the Steelers will be waiting for them in the first round of the playoffs.
Left sitting seventh in the standings after the weekend’s action, Barrasso’s team are relying on results elsewhere over the coming days in order to stand any chance of moving up and getting a different draw, one that would likely bring them up against either Nottingham Panthers or Glasgow Clan.