Heading into the Christmas period, Sheffield Steelers were sitting top of the Elite League standings, clear of their nearest rivals Braehead Clan by two points.
Four painful defeats in nine days, however, have left Gerad Adams’s ailing team looking up rather than down on their rivals.
Results elsewhere, leave the Steelers in fourth spot and five points adrift of leaders Braehead, who catapulted themselves to the top with a six-point weekend on the back of three wins in as many nights.
The comforting factor is, however, that a frustrated Adams and his suffering players will know deep down that the odds of a first Elite League regular season title since 2010 could quickly switch back in their favour once again – such is the nature of the UK’s top flight.
Any one from five teams are still realistically in with a chance of being crowned as the champions.
The weekend’s trip to the Odyssey Arena against defending champions Belfast Giants got off to the worst possible start with a 5-3 defeat on Friday night – the Steelers once again surrendering a two-goal lead, just as they did against Nottingham Panthers at the National Ice Centre on December 27.
But, while Adams was happy to blame what he considered poor refereeing as contributing to Steelers’ demise in the first game, he was not in a forgiving mood following a 6-3 defeat when the two sides met again 24 hours later, labelling his players “weak”.
“I think anytime you lose that many games in a row you should be angry,” said Adams.
“I believe we’ve got the group (of players) that can do it – I think there’s no question we can do it.
“I think as a group, there needs to be some mental toughness.
“We do a lot of stuff, the standard kind of stuff as coaches – we show videos and stuff and communicate one on one. But until there is a group decision to improve in those areas, we will continue to struggle against the so-called better teams.
“In a few games recently, there is a period in each game – whether it be 10 minutes or whatever – where we go incredibly weak mentally, incredibly weak physically and just fold for those minutes and the other team score a number of goals. It happened again on Saturday night.
“But you have to give Belfast credit for two games – I felt they played incredibly well on both nights.”
As on Friday night, the Steelers started strongly in Northern Ireland, going ahead when Tyler Mosienko scored his 19th of the season at 3.21.
Former Steelers’ forward Colin Shields equalised just over a minute later on the powerplay for the home side, but the Steelers stood firm and retaliated by going in at the break 2-1 ahead after Colton Fretter’s 17th of the season at 15.53.
But it was the second period where the game was lost by the Steelers, conceding four goals in a mad five-minute spell.
Cody Brookwell hauled Belfast level for a second time at 33.46 before his team went ahead for the first time on the night through Darryl Lloyd’s strike 43 seconds later.
It got worse for the visitors just under a minute later when Ray Sawada made it 4-2.
Jason Hewitt, back for the trip to Belfast after a short spell on the sidelines through injury, made it a one-goal game again when he fired past Carsen Chubak in the Giants’ goal at 37.38, but that good work was soon undone when Craig Peacock restored the hosts’ two-goal advantage 74 seconds later.
Steelers were able to steady the ship in the third period, but the damage had been done and salt was rubbed into their wounds when Mike Kompon made it 6-3 at 55.35.
To make matters worse for the Steelers, star forward Mathieu Roy may be ruled out for a spell after suffering an upper-body injury in the first period after being struck by the puck and then requiring hospital treatment.
The exit of the league’s leading points scorer was undoubtedly a huge loss for the Steelers, but not something Adams was looking to use as an excuse.
“He’s a huge player for us – an absolute warrior, so if he is going to be out of the line-up, it’s going to hurt us,” said Adams.
“But it didn’t matter who we had on the ice, the other team was pressuring and we weren’t able to handle the pressure – mentally or physically.”
As a result of their double over Steelers, Belfast moved into second place behind Ryan Finnerty’s Braehead, with Cardiff going third thanks to an 8-5 win over Fife Flyers – extending their winning streak to seven games.