SHEFFIELD STEELERS are hoping they can win home ice advantage after keeping their Continental Cup dream alive in Denmark.
Having endured a nightmare start to their campaign in Rungsted with a 7-1 defeat at the hands of eventual group winners Yunost Minsk on Friday, the prospects of progressing to the final round in January looked bleak.
But one thing that setback did was enable Paul Thompson’s team to focus sharply on the task ahead of them: two games, two wins, although Saturday night against hosts Rungsted will have severely tested the nerves of not just the players and coaches, but also the hundreds of fans who had made it out to Scandinavia.
For the second night running, the Steelers found themselves 3-0 down after 23 minutes, with all hope seemingly lost. But, somehow, the South Yorkshire club hauled themselves level, fell behind again, but did enough to ensure that overtime and then a shoot-out was required.
Thanks to the heroics of goaltender Ervins Mustukovs and the accuracy of Matt Marquardt and Jonas Westerling, the Steelers prevailed 5-4.
This set up yesterday’s tantalising clash with Latvia’s Kurbads Riga, both teams knowing victory would see them through.
It proved to be a case of role reversal for the five-time Elite League champions, who made sure they took full advantage of being handed a five-minute powerplay just under 10 minutes in following a boarding call on Riga’s Martins Cuplins, which saw him handed a game misconduct.
The next six minutes represented something of a frenzy, from which the Steelers emerged 3-2 ahead thanks to powerplay strikes from Westerling, Mathieu Roy and Levi Nelson, while conceding a shorthanded marker by Riga’s Gatis Gricinskis before Maratins Gipters made it a one-goal game again at 16.22 with the Latvians on the man advantage themselves.
Try as they might, Riga could not find a way past the Steelers’ defences again. Late third-period penalties against Andre Deveaux and Levi Nelson combined with Kurbads pulling netminder Uldis Calpa meant there were some anxious moments in the closing minutes for Thompson’s team until Ben O’Connor’s empty net strike with just four seconds left.
“This was the toughest Continental Cup I’ve ever been involved with and I’ve been involved in five now,” said head coach Thompson.
“Minsk were as good as anyone we’ve ever played and we’re going to be in the final with them so, hopefully, we can show them what we’re actually really about and, hopefully, that will be in Sheffield.”
While Thompson and his back-up team no doubt sweated on the bench at times, on the ice the players remained confident they could get the job done, as revealed by captain Jonathan Phillips.
“We wanted to come out here and prove ourselves after what was a poor game for us on Friday,” he said. “We always expect the best from each other and we showed that.
“We felt confident, even towards the end when were killing penalties – we just stayed cool, calm and collected.”
This was the toughest Continental Cup I’ve ever been involved with. Hopefully, we can now show Minsk what we’re actually really about and, hopefully, that will be in Sheffield.Sheffield Steelers’ head coach, Paul Thompson.