SHEFFIELD STEELERS’ long wait to get their hands on the Challenge Cup must continue after they were beaten 3-2 by Cardiff Devils in South Wales.
The Steelers had gone in at the end of the first period 2-1 ahead after strikes from Robert Dowd and Mathieu Roy overturned Gleason Fournier’s fourth-minute opener.
But a dominant display by the Devils in the last 40 minutes eventually took its toll on the Steelers, Mark Louis equalising in the latter stages of the second period before the game-winning goal came from Layne Ulmer in the 44th minute.
It is the second time in three years that the Steelers have fallen at the final hurdle to the same opponents in a competition they have never won since the Elite League started back in 2003.
Five previous encounters between the two in South Wales had been decided by the odd goal previously this season, the South Yorkshire club coming out on top twice.
It was an equally fierce battle on Sunday afternoon at Ice Arena Wales
A pulsating first period lived up to expectations as the two teams went toe-to-toe from the first drop.
Both Ervins Mustukovs in the Steelers goal and his Rotherham-born counterpart Ben Bowns - who looks likely to back-stop Cardiff to the regular season title - were both forced into action early on.
Mustukovs twice had to deflect away with his pads while at the other end Bowns had to be on his toes to deny Levi Nelson following good work by Andreas Valdix - back in the line-up after missing four games - and Mike Ratchuk.
But it was the Devils who opened the scoring, the puck breaking to an unmarked Fournier, who fired a rasping shot past the left side of Mustukovs and into the top corner.
Steelers rallied quickly and forced Bowns into action through Colton Fretter - also clear of injury - and Jace Coyle, but the Devils were doing a good job of keeping them to the outside.
A 30-second 5-on-3 power play came and went for the Steelers, as did the subsequent 90 seconds on just the one-man advantage.
They should have been level in the 15th minute when captain Jonathan Phillips was denied by a sprawling Bowns,but it wasn’t long before the game was all-square.
Good work by Nelson behind the net saw the puck eventually break free to Dowd, who side-stepped one man before firing home low to Bowns’s left.
Unlike previously, the Steelers made their next power play count when Cardiff were penalised for too many men on the ice.
Roy found room for himself on the right-hand boards and fired in a rasping shot past a helpless Bowns.
Not surprisingly, the Devils came out with some urgency in the second, forcing Mustukovs into a number of saves from Matthew Myers, Andrew Hotham and Chris Jones.
A cross-checking penalty call on Mike Ratchuk saw further pressure come down on the Steelers net, Mustukovs even taking one directly in the mask as Devils pushed hard to level.
Sean Bentivoglio was left free on the edge of the Steelers zone but couldn’t make it count before another Devils power play was repealed by a determined Steelers rearguard.
But the pressure eventually told when Mark Louis made a big enough nuisance off himself in front of net to deflect Hotham’s shot enough for the puck to squeeze through Mustukovs.
The third period was just under four minutes old when the fatal blow came from the stick of Cardiff’s Layne Ulmer, the Devils domination of the second two periods encapsulated in them out-shooting a jaded looking Steelers 30-5, the overall shot difference in the game being 40-19.
The one clear chance that did come Steelers’ way fell to Guillaume Desbiens, who broke clear while his team were on the penalty kill only former Sheffield Steeldogs and Hull Stingrays netminder Bowns to deny him.
At the other end, Mustukovs continued with his heroics to keep his team in the game but momentum was with the Devils who were deserved winners.