Nottingham Panthers 2 Sheffield Steelers 3 - Liam Kirk and Ben Churchfield leading lights as Steelers start Elite Series in positive fashion

LIAM KIRK struck twice and back-up netminder Ben Churchfield stood tall as Sheffield Steelers got their Elite Series campaign off to a winning start with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Nottingham Panthers at the National Ice Centre.

STRIKE ONE: Liam Kirk fires through Ben Bowns for his first of the night to make it 2-0 to Sheffield Steelers over Nottingham Panthers in the Elite Series. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

2018 NHL Draft pick Kirk continued where he had left off for Sheffield Steeldogs in the recent Spring Cup where he finished as the top points scorer with his timely strikes, while Churchfield overcame a nervy start after being called on the replace injured first-choice goalie John Muse to back-stop his team to a memorable win.

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Almost 13 months on from when they last played a competitive game - when ending their 17-year wait for a Challenge Cup trophy by beating Cardiff Devils 4-3 in South Wales - the Steelers were able to pick up where they left off.

Not surprisingly, given the frantic way in which rosters for the competition have been put together in just a few weeks, it was a cagey first 20 minutes while both teams found their feet, the only noticeable events being the three penalties taken by the Steelers, all of which were successfully killed.

Teams came out with more purpose in the second, but still the deadlock couldn’t be broken until after the halfway mark, captain Jonathan Phillips tipping in a blast from defenceman Kevin Schulze at 33.51 to put the Steelers ahead.

It wasn’t long before the Steelers doubled their lead, too, Kirk bursting down the left and firing a low shot under Ben Bowns’s left pad at 34.56.

But the Steelers were then forced into a change they probably hadn’t banked on when Muse limped off shortly after Kirk’s strike, offering an early opportunity for 25-year-old Churchfield to impress.

NO WAY THROUGH: Ben Churchfield turns away Christophe Boivin's penalty shot in the 57th minute to preserve Sheffield Steelers' 3-2 lead over Nottingham. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

But, no sooner had he settled in between the pipes than he was picking the puck out of the net after Kevin Domingue fired one over his right shoulder and into the roof of the net at 35.27.

Sensing a chance to draw level quickly, the Panthers continued to pore forward and got their rewards when Austin Cangelosi left an unsighted Churchfield with no chance when firing through traffic at 38.13.

With Churchfield potentially unsettled by conceding two quick goals, the Panthers no doubt came out for the third confident of forging ahead, but it was at the other end of the ice that the next goal came, Kirk blasting past Bowns at 41.02 to restore the visitors’ lead.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the period belonged to the Panthers who were relentless in their efforts to haul themselves level for a second time.

Jonathan Phillips (hidden) tips in Kevin Schulze's blast past an unsighted Ben Bowns to open the scoring for Sheffield Steelers at the National Ice Centre. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.

Steelers and Churchfield in particular came under tremendous pressure going into the last 10 minutes but the back-up only grew in confidence and, with that, so too did the players in front of him. Fox’s team were then buoyed even further when their goalie turned away a penalty shot from Christophe Boivin in the 57th minute.

Davey Phillips then took an interference penalty shortly after, maintaining the pressure and prompting Panthers coach Tim Wallace to call a timeout. But, despite the Panthers desperation - Churchfield turned away 16 shots on goal in the third and 22 in total - there was to be no way through and the Steelers held on.

Earlier in the day, Manchester Storm won the opening matchof the competition when beating Coventry Blaze 3-2 in sudden death overtime. The Steelers and the Storm meet at 2pm on Sunday.

Aaron Fox behind the bench at the National Ice Centre. Picture courtesy of Dean Woolley.