PAUL THOMPSON admitted he faced a busy summer after seeing his Sheffield Steelers end the season trophyless following their Elite League play-off final defeat to Cardiff Devils.
The 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Arena ensured Cardiff won a double for the second season running, this time around adding the post-season crown to the league title.
For Thompson, it will be the first summer his trophy cupboard has been left bare since succeeding Gerad Adams in 2015.
And while he admits that fact will be hard for him and his players to stomach, he is relishing the challenge ahead of making sure the club is not in the same situation 12 months from now.
As is often the case with every Elite League team there will be departures and there will be new faces coming through the door at Sheffield Arena, with Thompson acknowledging there is a gap that needs to be closed on the Devils, a team he believes to be one of the very best in the Elite League era.
“This isn’t an easy league to win in, it’s not like it was four or five years ago,” said Thompson, who will begin to conduct his player exit interviews today. “So, are we disappointed not to have a trophy this year? Yes, of course we are but we’re going to look to build and we know we’re a little way away from where Cardiff are right now. We’ve got a busy summer ahead of us.
“This Cardiff side is right up with the best I’ve seen in the Elite League – they are so deep and have real quality everywhere.
“We know where we are and we know where we want to be, so there’s a lot of work to get through.”
Although the regular season league title is regarded as the most prized trophy in the British game, little can be taken away from the showpiece occasion that is the grand finale to the EIHL’s somewhat truncated play-off format. Any doubters as to the worthwhile nature of the occasion need only be shown a DVD of last year’s final between the Steelers and Cardiff, an epic, see-saw battle that was only ended by Levi Nelson’s winning goal in the second period of overtime.
Yesterday’s replay of that match wasn’t quite as exhilarating, but still an absorbing encounter between two evenly-matched sides, refusing to give an inch.
This Cardiff side is right up with the best I’ve seen in the Elite League – they are so deep and have real quality everywhere.Paul Thompson
Thompson opted to replace forward Matt Marquardt with defenceman Miika Fransilla after Saturday’s 5-4 win in overtime against Nottingham Panthers and while a goalless first period wasn’t short on chances, neither goaltender was stretched into making any grandstand saves.
The Steelers came closest when Rotherham-born Ben Bowns was forced into a smart save by Rob Dowd after he had skilfully worked an opening for himself.
The second period picked up where the first had left off but there was always a sense that a goal was never far away – and so it proved when Steelers’ Ben O’Connor was called for hooking in the 25th minute. The Steelers were left rightfully aggrieved at going behind, however, after a high-sticking call on Tim Wallace close to the Devils’ goal was missed by the officials.
Play broke quickly down the other end and, after a neat exchange of passes, Matt Pope blasted past Ervins Mustukovs at 24.53. Dowd again forced a quick reaction save from Bowns, but the Steelers no doubt went in at the second intermission wondering how they were two goals adrift after a strike from the influential Andrew Hotham. The Devils playmaker was allowed too much space from a face-off, being left with enough time to pick his spot high past Mustukovs.
Naturally, the Steelers came out with more purpose and after a searing strike from Eric Neiley halved the deficit at 46.55 the momentum was clearly with Thompson’s team. But Cardiff held firm and, with Mustukovs pulled for the extra attacker, Jake Morrisette slotted home into the empty net. It was a cruel blow for the Steelers, but nobody can deny that the Devils have once again proved the best team over the course of the whole season.
“Hotham made the difference for Cardiff,” said Thompson. “He is a hell of a player. He scored that second goal for them on a play that we know all about, but we kind of misread a little bit. I couldn’t be prouder of my group; we gave everything we had.”