Sheffield Steelers 5 Cardiff Devils 4 - Steelers excel before late rally leaves Devils smiling

SHEFFIELD STEELERS prevailed in the first leg of their Elite League playoff quarter-final against Cardiff Devils, but it was their opponents who had the wider smiles come the end of the night.

TAKE THAT: Rob Dowd, far left, celebrates his second goal against Cardiff. Picture: Dean Woolley.
TAKE THAT: Rob Dowd, far left, celebrates his second goal against Cardiff. Picture: Dean Woolley.

With just under 20 minutes remaining, the Steelers found themselves in dreamland after John Armstrong's second goal of the night put them 5-1 up against the visitors from South Wales who, despite missing out on a third straight league title jut six days earlier on the final day of the regular season, were still clear favourites going into the two legged tie.

Fast forward 25 minutes or so and it was the Devils who were all smiles as they skated off the Sheffield Arena ice, three unanswered goals ensuring they returned home just one goal adrift and boasting a dominant record against the Steelers at the Viola Arena so far this season.

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But upsets are there to be made - witness Coventry Blaze's stunning 3-1 over Cardiff last Sunday to deny them a third straight league title - and despite the Devils' ability to make it just a one-goal at the halfway mark, Steelers' head coach Tom Barrasso, behind the home bench for the Steelers for the last time, declared he was proud of his players' efforts.

"If you'd told me before the game that we'd have beaten that team - by any amount - I'd have taken it and not gone on the ice," said Barrasso. "So I'll take a one-goal victory. For us to compete the way that we did, I was very proud of our effort.

"I thought we played hard and did a lot of things that were little outside of character for some of the individuals on the team, the physicality, blocking shots and the commitment to D-zone coverage, I thought we did a really nice job."

Rob Dowd gave Sheffield the perfect start in the fifth minute when a neat exchange between himself and Josh Pitt down the right-hand side enabled the GB international to dance through unchecked before beating Ben Bowns on his near post.

Layne Ulmer was quickest to react to a rebound off Steelers' netminder Jackson Whistle to tie things up a little over two minutes into the second period but the Steelers responded in the best possible way, scoring three unanswered second period goals to establish a firm grip on the game.

FIVE-HOLE: John Armstrong, far right, spins away after making it 5-1 to the Steelers. Picture: Dean Woolley.

Dowd was the beneficiary of some neat skill and a well-timed pass from John Armstrong to fire the puck through Bowns's legs from in front at 29.10 before - just over two minutes later - Jordan Owens jammed the puck home to make it 3-1, the first of two goals on a power play brought about by the ejection of Cardiff's James Livingston for a kneeing check on Anthony DeLuca.

It became 4-1 when Armstrong found space for himself in front to fire through Bowns after a neat feed from Tom Zanoski. And it was the influential Armstrong who again found himself in the right place at the right time to finish off a pass from Eric Neiley on the right wing to make it 5-1 with a short-handed strike.

But, emphasising one reason why they have been so dominant over in the last couple of years, Cardiff patiently chipped away at deficit over the remaining 18 minutes. Sean Bentivoglio pounced on a rebound at 45.31 to silence the home crowd, who were quietened further when Joey Martin pounced on a rebound at 54.20.

Then, with Tanner Eberle in the box on a hooking call, Cardiff reduced the lead even further, Bentivoglio was quickest to react to another scramble in front of goal, poking home at 58.04 to ensure the momentum was in his side's favour when the two sides lock horns once again at 6pm on Sunday.

THANKS, TOM: In what was his last match behind the home bench, head coach Tom Barrasso was given a rousing send-off by Steelers fans after the 5-4 win over Cardiff. Picture: Dean Woolley.

So far this season, the Steelers have come up short at the Viola Arena, losing on all three visits and conceding 20 goals while scoring just four. Barrasso had said prior to the game his side had only played good hockey in South Wales for 30 minutes out of a possible 180 this season. Double that on Sunday and they have a great chance of pulling off something special.