WHILE it was not the way anyone would have wanted the season to end, Sheffield Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson declared himself ‘proud’ of the club’s achievements during 2015-16.
The Steelers went into weekend intent on clinching a first double since the one won under Dave Matsos in 2009.
In the end, a team who had had their number for the majority of the regular season undid them again in the first round of the play-offs, Coventry Blaze winning 8-6 on aggregate after matters ended 3-3 at Sheffield Arena on Sunday night.
The damage, though, was done 24 hours earlier at the SkyDome Arena when the Steelers found themselves 5-0 down at the halfway mark before clawing back three goals to give themselves hope going into the return leg at home.
WATCH - click on the video above to see our post-match interview with Steelers’ head coach Paul Thompson
When 3-1 ahead going into the third period last night, momentum was with Thompson’s team and most people in the 7,000-plus crowd probably expected them to go on and book their place at the Final Four Weekend at Nottingham’s National Ice Centre.
But it was Coventry - play-off winners after beating the Steelers in the final last year - who discovered another level, Thompson admitting that his players, after a long, exhausting campaign, had no “jump” left when it really mattered.
“We had to come from 5-0 down and we did well to bring it back to 6-6 on aggregate,” said Thompson.
“But I felt that we lacked any kind of jump in the third period and I thought Coventry finished the stronger. So I take nothing away from them, they deserved to go through and they were better than us over the two legs.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow right now, but I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this season and we’ve lost to a good team.
“The last four or five weeks has been pretty intense and I think that might have caught up with some of our players.
“Coventry knew they were in the play-offs a few weeks ago and they would have been preparing accordingly.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow right now, but I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this season and we’ve lost to a good teamPaul Thompson, Sheffield Steelers’ head coach.
“We were still head down focusing on the league and we’ve achieved that and I’m not only proud that we’ve achieved it, but we’ve retained that title which is the hardest thing to do.”
It couldn’t have got off to a worst possible start for the Steelers, the euphoria which had greeted the players on being announced as the Elite League champions being quickly followed by silence when Coventry took the lead just over a minute in via Russ Cowley’s simple tap in following good work by the lively Cale Tanaka.
Understandably, frustration crept in among the Steelers players, with captain Jon Phillips taking a roughing penalty and Tyler Mosienko following him into the box soon after for interference on Blaze goalie Brian Stewart.
Coventry then became indisciplined themselves, with Josh Godfrey being followed into the box by Jim Jorgensen, leaving the hosts with a 93-second 5-on-3 powerplay.
They made it pay when Freddie Vestberg worked space for a shot which was deflected in by Mathieu Roy to make it 1-1.
The second goal the Steelers’ possession deserved came as Jace Coyle’s speculative shot on goal cannoning in off the right skate of Coventry’s James Isaac under pressure from Mosienko.
It should have been 3-1 to Steelers at the break when Vestberg had a golden chance two yards out from a gaping, empty net with Stewart exposed, only to somehow fire over.
An even second period saw neither side create that many clear-cut chances and it wasn’t until just after the halfway point that the loudest cheer of the night arrived.
Enjoying another powerplay courtesy of Boris Valabik being in the box, Colton Fretter – who returned the previous night after spending the majority of the season out injured – skilfully worked space for himself on the left before firing past Stewart, who was unsighted thanks to a screen in front from Guillaume Desbiens.
Marek Pinc had to be alert at the other end to save neatly from Josh Godfrey, before pulling off a neat poke check on Cale Tanaka before sticking out a pad to deny Ashley Tait’s snapshot on the turn.
At the other end, Jeff Legue – in his last-ever game at Sheffield Arena – fed Rod Sarich who forced a reflex save from Stewart.
The third period was a stop-start affair, Coventry going closest to scoring through the impressive Carl Lauzon.
And it was after the Blaze had enjoyed a spell of pressure that they made their possession pay when, at 48.56, Drew Fisher back-handed past Pinc to once again silence the home crowd with the visitors going ahead on aggregate.
If Steelers had been playing desperate hockey at the start of the second leg, they cranked it up another few notches now.
Levi Nelson was denied point-blank by Stewart, while Conny Stromberg hit the post.
It was as close as they got. And, with Pinc understandably pulled, their season was officially ended when Cowley struck with an empty net strike 12 seconds from time, levelling matters on the night and giving his team an 8-6 aggregate victory.