ONE down, eight to go.
Sheffield Steelers negotiated their first tricky hurdle on the Elite League title run-in, leaving another eight to overcome if they are to stand any chance of retaining their regular season crown.
Elsewhere, leaders Cardiff Devils maintained their six-point cushion over Sheffield at the top when they trounced Coventry Blaze 8-0 at home. Third-placed Belfast Giants - a point behind Steelers - swept Fife Flyers aside 7-2.
It was edgy and, for a while in the third, it was tense against Nottingham Panthers in front of a 7,000-plus crowd at Sheffield Arena on Saturday night, but Paul Thompson’s players got the job done, the nerves of the home fans only settled by captain Jonathan Phillips’s empty netter with 21 seconds remaining.
It was a speculative effort from along the boards deep in his own zone but, after the puck had eventually rolled and bounced its way into the Panthers net, the roar which followed from the home support was mixed in with a huge sense of relief.
That was because of the way the third period had panned out after the Steelers - still missing forward Andreas Valdix through injury - had entered it 3-0 ahead following a barnstorming second period.
The tension among the hosts and their fans came after the Panthers were allowed to score two soft goals in less than a minute, the first coming through Robert Lachowicz, who pounced on a mistake by Davey Phillips just inside the Steelers’ zone to fire through Ervins Mustukovs at 42.39.
The momentum had suddenly swung the other way and, just 47 seconds later, David Clarke fired through a crowd past an unsighted Mustukovs.
The Panthers sensed blood and the Steelers came under immense pressure for the next five or so minutes, Mustukovs and a solid rearguard somehow keeping the hosts in front before the Steelers were able to gain a foothold in the period and exert some pressure of their own during the final 10 minutes. Guillaume Desbiens’s one-on-one against replacement goaltender Jindrich Pacl the closest chance before Phillips’s late, late strike.
Earlier, the game exploded into life when Steelers’ Geoff Walker and Panthers’ Jeff Brown were handed five-minute majors for fighting at the two-minute mark.
While they sat in the box, the Panthers were hit further when Alex Nikiforuk was handed a game misconduct for boarding.
Mathieu Roy went closest for the Steelers - boosted by Colton Fretter and Mike Ratchuk being fully recovered – in a period which, after the early excitement, became somewhat subdued. But that all changed within five minutes of the restart when Roy ripped one past starting netminder Miika Wiikman at 20.31.
Just over three minutes later, an effort from John Armstrong deflected in off Jon Phillips and, with the Panthers still reeling, Walker was quickest to react to a loose puck in front of Wiikman’s goal to fire home on the power play for 3-0 at 29.24.
Little did anyone realise at the time how edgy the game would become thereafter, nerves only being eased when man-of-the-match captain Phillips grabbed his second of the night.
We bent and we bent and we bent, but we didn’t break and that is the key to winning.Sheffield Steelers, head coach, Paul Thompson.
“It was pretty easy for two period and we were pretty confident,” said Thompson afterwards.
“But you can’t give good teams like Nottingham an inch and they scored a goal which shouldn’t really have gone in and then that gave them momentum for the next five minutes or so and they started to press and we conceded another soft goal.
“But, we bent and we bent but we didn’t break and that is the key to winning.”
Steelers lost Robert Dowd following a cross-check from Nottingham’s Steve Lee and is a doubt for Sunday’s road test at Fife Flyers. The valuable Valdix will still be missing but Thompson is hopeful of him returning for next weekend’s Challenge Cup Final against Cardiff Devils in South Wales.