Steelers edge out Stingrays to keep pressure on Devils

SHEFFIELD STEELERS edged the first of three Yorkshire derbies in 11 days against Hull Stingrays, their 4-3 road win enabling them to turn up the pressure on Elite League leaders Cardiff Devils.

Two goals apiece for Neil Clark and Jason Hewitt sealed the triumph for the visitors but, in a pulsating contest, they were pushed extremely close by Hull, for who Andrew Coburn, Matti Uusivirta and Jereme Tendler were on target.

Combined with a 5-3 defeat for Cardiff at Coventry Blaze, Sunday night's result in Hull sees the Steelers narrow the gap to three points on the Welsh club with a game in hand. The two meet in what increasingly looks like being a league title-defining double header weekend on February 19-20.

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Belfast Giants may still have something to say about that, however, after a four-point weekend saw them draw level on points with second-placed Steelers, who have played three games less.

Steelers' player-coach Ben Simon admitted afterwards that his team - who were outshot 39-26 - hadn't been at their best in Hull but, crucially, found a way to win.

"At the end of the day we got the two points, but I don't think we played as well as we could have done," said Simon.

"For some reason we come into this building and we don't play as well as I know we can, but at the same time they made life very difficult for us. They are a deceiving team because their record is not reflective of the type of team they are.

"If Moose (goaltender Ervins Mustukovs) hadn't stood on his head, that first period could have been a disaster for us.

"This was a game we really needed to win, especially with Coventry beating Cardiff - it could turn out to be a really big night."

After heavy pressure from the home side, Steelers showed why their powerplay is the most effective in the league when Clark bagged his 30th goal of the season at 11.19 while Ryan Lake was in the box for a slashing call.

But the home side were level five minutes later when Coburn broke down centre ice and played a neat one-two with Tendler before slotting the puck past Mustukovs.

Steelers looked to have handed Hull a great opportunity to get ahead towards the end of the first when they had defencemen Jerramie Domish and Mark Thomas in the box for contentious calls.

But Hull's powerplay has failed to click in recent weeks and they nearly paid dearly for it when Rod Sarich broke down the other end to fire past Christian Boucher, only to be denied by the buzzer that had sounded just a split-second before the puck hit the back of the net.

Hewitt's tip-in from a Robert Dowd shot in the 24th minute saw Steelers edge ahead again and in a more even second period - notable by neither side incurring any penalties - it took Hull a while to find a way through, this time impressive Finnish centre Uusivirta tapping home near the post after good work by Coburn.

Steelers enjoyed some good fortune when Clark's 46th-minute shot took a wicked deflection off a Hull player and, when Hewitt bundled home his second of the night four minutes later it appeared to be game over.

But Hull came roaring back and got their rewards when Tendler finished off a smart move on the powerplay at 53.22 to ensure a nervous final few minutes for the visitors, who hung on for what could prove to be a pivotal night in the race for the regular season title.

Hull player-coach Sylvain Cloutier couldn't hide his disappointment at the result, but took comfort from once again seeing his team prove a good match for one of the title contenders. He takes his team into Sheffield on Wednesday night to try and exact some swift revenge with another derby battle scheduled for Wednesday, February 9 back at Hull Arena.

"It is disapointing, of course it is," said Cloutier. "In the last four matches we've deserved a lot better, but we've got nothing to show for it.

"I've told the guys to keep their heads up because we're not playing bad, we're playing well and we will get our rewards soon.

"It's good that we've got to play them straightaway again because we know it's going to be an intense game and we need that."

The result marked Hull's fourth straight defeat, having slipped to a 5-3 reverse at Dundee Stars on Saturday.

Tendler (2) and Cloutier were on target for the visitors - who again failed to get their powerplay going - but goals from Tristan Harper, Brent Hughes, Dan Ceman, Gary Wishart and AJ Maclean saw the Stars claim both points.