SHEFFIELD STEELERS stand in the way of Cardiff Devils landing a grand slam on Sunday after defeating Belfast Giants 2-0 to book their place in the Elite League play-off final.
Cardiff had earlier come from 2-0 down to defeat Dundee Stars 4-2 at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre, meaning their bid to lift four trophies after winning the regular season championship, Erhardt Conference and Challenge Cup, remains very much on.
The Steelers now stand in their way, but were made to work hard for their place in the season finale, relying on a sweet fifth-minute strike from Guillaume Desbiens, before Levi Nelson added an empty-netter with 25 seconds remaining to make sure of victory.
The Steelers will need little incentive to deny the Devils the slam, given they lost out to them in the race for the title and in the final of the Challenge Cup in South Wales in March.
“It was far from easy to get past Belfast, I tip my hat to them,” said goal-scorer Desbiens.
“They are a very good team, they brought their best game and I don’t think we had our ‘A’ game but we recognised that early in the game and then cramped down tightly defensively and were very tight in our defensive zone and made sure that they couldn’t come to the net.
“And when we were broke down, Moose was there and we capitalised when we had chances.
“Even though they had the best of us during the game, I still think we played a pretty good game - it was good enough to win obviously.”
As expected, given the regular season head-to-head series finished all-square with four wins apiece, the early minutes of the first period were a teasing affair with both sides not prepared to be too adventurous.
But it wasn’t too long before the deadlock was broken, Swedish centre Andreas Valdix finding Guillaume Desbiens in space on the right from where he took one touch before unleashing a shot which proved too fierce for Stephen Murphy in the Giants net.
For the rest of the period, the better chances fell Belfast’s way, former Steelers’ forward Mike Forney forcing Mustukovs into a smart save before Jim Vandermeer was also denied in the 15th minute.
The clearest opportunity came two minutes later when Rod Sarich was robbed of the puck by David Rutherford but, with the goal at his mercy, he fired high and wide.
Further pressure followed from the Giants as the Steelers struggled to get out of their zone, but Mustukovs was left largely untroubled for the rest of the period with the first penalty of the game being handed out to Giants’ player-coach Derrick Walser for delay of game.
In the second, the teams seemed determined to keep each other to the outside even more, meaning chances were at a premium.
Rutherford again found himself in a promising position in the 25th minute but - again - couldn’t find the target with only Mustukovs to beat.
Markus Nilsson fanned on his shot when set up neatly by Desbiens, Chris Higgins firing wide when well-placed at the other end.
Matt Towe looked odds on to score in the 34th minute when poised to meet a feed from Jerome Leduc right in front of net, only for Mustukovs to smartly poke the puck away.
In the third period, the Steelers had to sustain further pressure and literally laid their bodies on the line, with Zack Fitzgerald, Yared Hagos and Mathieu Roy all taking significant blows, while Mustukovs remained unruffled behind them.
The Giants had numerous chances, but nothing clear-cut apart from one glaring opportunity for Rutherford in the 55th minute when the Giants forward somehow missed an open net from just a few fee out.
It proved to be the crucial moment, closely followed by a penalty call on the Giants for too many men on the ice.
Murphy was pulled from the net regardless, leaving Nelson with the simple task of rolling the puck in with just 25 seconds left on the clock.