SHEFFIELD STEELERS may have registered a crucial win over Elite League title rivals Cardiff Devils - but it came at a significant cost.
Missing key forwards Guillaume Desbiens, Colton Fretter and Rob Dowd, goals from Jason Hewitt, Freddie Vestberg and Ryan Hayes secured a gritty 3-2 win over the current leaders at Sheffield Arena on Saturday night, closing the gap between the two clubs to four points with Steelers having two games in hand and two more games between the two still to come.
But as he takes his team north to face the Dundee Stars on Sunday evening, Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson will be poring through his contacts book in a search for a replacement goaltender after first-choice Marek Pinc suffered an injury early in the second period.
Brad Day - so often a reliable stand-in this season - once again stepped up in exemplary style for almost 40 minutes, but Thompson knows he will need another high-end goalie to help them remain a realistic title contender over the next two months.
“It’s not good,” said Thompson when asked about Pinc after a stirring performance in front of 5,500 fans.
“He’s not going to be ready for the foreseeable future and we’ve got to look to bring another goalie in. Brad will get us a win in Dundee though.”
Despite dominating the first period, Steelers went in 1-0 behind when Ryan Russell fired past Pinc with just 17 seconds remaining with only Cardiff’s third shot of the night, compared to 13 from the hosts.
A more even, yet goalless period followed and it wasn’t until just over five minutes into the third that the hosts deservedly drew level, Hewitt following up his crucial goal against Fife Flyers in the Challenge Cup in midweek with his sixth of the season at 45.15.
But, despite controlling large parts of the final 20, the second goal would not come until a smart piece of play from Conny Stromberg saw his shot tipped in from in front of the net by fellow Swede Vestberg. 57.55 on the clock.
Not surprisingly, Cardiff pulled Rotherham-born goaltender Ben Bowns and, as so often happens, paid the price when Hayes made it 3-1 with just 78 seconds remaining.
The boys were outstanding, from the first minute through to the 60thPaul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers’ head coach.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, with Cardiff ensuring a nervous final few seconds for the home fans when they hit back through Carl Hudson at 59.48, with Hewitt in the penalty box on a roughing call.
The Steelers saw out those last few seconds though and there was no hiding the delight from their head coach afterwards.
“The boys were outstanding, from the first minute through to the 60th,” said Thompson.
“It took us until the third period to grind them down but I’m very proud to be their coach.
“I thought we just battled so hard, we got our systems right and I thought we outworked Cardiff who are a good club - they are a well-coached club and have some high-end talent there.”
And while Thompson was full of praise for his entire roster on Saturday night, he singled out two individuals who played particularly key roles.
“Pincy picked up a nasty injury which is going to keep him out for a while and Brad came in for us again,” added Thompson.
“That kid has come on so far in the last six months it is unbelievable - he’s just unflappable.
He just gets into the net and does his job.
“And Jason Hewitt was another level, certainly the best game he’s had since I’ve been here. That was a character win for us all.”
Another concern for Steelers, however, and indeed for Cardiff, will be the form of third-placed Braehead Clan, whose 4-2 win over Dundee Stars stretched their winning streak to six games.
Managed by Ryan Finnerty - a former player for both clubs as well as having had a two-year spell as coach in Sheffield - the result took the Glasgow club to within a point of Steelers with two games in hand. They have four games in hand on leaders Cardiff.
Two wins in as many nights at home to Coventry Blaze has seen Belfast Giants return as a contender after losing out twice to Steelers at home two weeks ago. It leaves them two points behind Braehead, with Nottingham a further point back, two ahead of Dundee.
It all adds up - as long thought - to a fascinating last few weeks of the season, with the likelihood being a repeat of last season’s final weekend climax, which saw Steelers pip Braehead to the regular season championship on the penultimate night of the campaign with a 2-1 home victory over Cardiff, who had to settle for third.
To coin a phrase, it really is too close to call, making it all the more vital that the Steelers delivered the goods on Saturday night.