TWO previous encounters against defending champions Cardiff Devils this season had seen Sheffield Steelers soundly beaten but, on this occasion, they can justifiably count themselves unlucky to have come off second-best.
A 6-2 defeat on home ice in September was followed by a 7-1 hammering in South Wales a month later but, at Sheffield Arena last night, Tom Barrasso’s side more than held their own before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat.
It leaves the Steelers outside the top eight play-off spots , with the Glasgow Clan due to visit South Yorkshire on Saturday night before a trip to Manchester Storm 24 hours later.
But the main talking point of the night was a disallowed goal scored by Mark Matheson towards the end of the second period, a goal which, if it had stood as replays suggested it should have, would have completed a stirring comeback from the home side after they went 2-0 behind inside the first 20 minutes.
Instead, the the game-winning goal went the way of the visitors with less than five minutes remaining with the Steelers unable to drag themselves back level for a second time, despite some late pressure.
When asked about the call on Armstrong afterwards, Barrasso revealed his frustration.
"He (Armstrong) is clearly pushed, he's clearly checked into their goaltender," said Barrasso. "To me, if he wants to wave the goal off, because the goalie wasn't able to play his position that is fine.
"But I don't see why it is a penalty, personally, and that is a little annoying."
The Steelers - boosted by the return from injury of forward Eric Neiley and handing a debut to 20-year-old Latvian defenceman Silvestrs Selickis - started brightly enough without seriously troubling Ben Bowns in the Cardiff goal, his opposite number Jackson Whistle the one first called into a smart save when he denied Charles Linglet, who then hit the post with the rebound.
The dominance Cardiff had been building paid dividends at 9.15 when, with Steelers’ Tom Zanoski in the box on an interference call, a feed from Layne Ulmer on the right wing was tipped in by Joey Martin.
Jordan Eberle should have at least hit the target shortly after when on a breakaway but blazed over, likewise Rob Dowd who, with the Steelers breaking on a 3-on-1, fired straight at Bowns.
Those misses were to prove costly when Cardiff doubled their lead 13.17 a rebound from Whistle breaking kindly to Jake Morrissette who poked the puck home into the unguarded net.
It was in the second period that the Steelers roared back into contention and were unlucky not to have gone in at the next break a goal to the good.
John Armstrong halved the deficit when he rounded the net and squeezed the puck home under Bowns’s pads at 26.38.
The strike gave the hosts renewed vigour and they capitalised to draw level just under seven minutes later when the puck fell kindly to Jonathan Phillips to prod home from three feet out after Ben O’Connor’s initial effort had ricocheted free.
The Steelers then thought they had gone 3-2 ahead with a scrambled effort for Matheson only for John Armstrong to be sent to the box for goalie interference instead.
Feeling aggrieved the Steelers continued where they left off when they came back for the third, but neither side created clear goal-scoring chances.
The deadlock was finally broken at 55.49 when, after a period of sustained pressure from the home side, the puck broke down the other end of the ice, where Ryan Martinelli was robbed on the back boards by Layne Ulmer who was able to break clear around the back of the net and pick out Gleason Fournier who fired past an unsighted Whistle.
A late Steelers power play was a lively affair and brought several chances for Dowd, O’Connor and Jonas Westerling, but there was to be no way past Bowns again on the night.