50/50 opening weekend for Steelers Steelers start off their 2013/14 Elite League Campaign with a win and a loss in the Challenge Cup

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Steelers win just one of their opening two Challenge Cup games

SHEFFIELD, U.K. – The Sheffield Steelers had an indifferent start to their 2013/14 season after an impressive win over the Coventry Blaze on Saturday night was followed up with a lacklustre loss to fierce rivals the Nottingham Panthers 24 hours later.

The Steelers travelled to the Midlands on Saturday evening to take on fellow Erhardt Conference rivals the Coventry Blaze.

The Steelers had a summer reshuffle, as well as new coaching and backroom staff, the Steelers had ten new players in the line-up, including former Steelers and Great Britain star Robert Dowd.

The Steelers came out of the gate flying, and had the hosts on the back foot straight away when Great Britain international Jonathan Phillips fired home a blistering wrist shot after a sublime Tim Spencer pass at 01:59 to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.

The game turned spicy at 3:59 when Coventry’s pantomime villain Benn Olson was assessed a 2+10 checking from behind penalty after a badly timed hit on Rob Dowd.

Tim Spencer - Sheffield Steelers v Nottingham Panthers 8/9/13

Three assists for Tim Spencer against the Blaze (Image courtesy of Dean Woolley)

The South Yorkshire side gathered momentum and soon doubled their lead courtesy of defenceman Danny Meyers who snuck in back post and one-timed a shot low past Blaze netminder Mike Zacharias to make it 2-0 at 07:39.

The Blaze were resilient and almost broke deadlock, with former Steeler and newly appointed Blaze Captain Ashley Tait forcing a good save from Steelers new netminder Frank Doyle in the eleventh minute.

The Steelers widened the margin at 17:42 when former NHL’er Stefan Meyer was on hand to tap home a rebound from close range after a Mark Thomas point shot to give his team a 3-0 lead.

The period was drawing to a close when the impressive Ryan Ginand went coast-to-coast and fired home a superb solo effort on the powerplay at 18:47 reducing the deficit to two.

Blaze Head Coach Matt Söderström’s end of period talk must have done the trick as Adam Henrich outmuscled Steeler debutant Dustin Kohn, and forced the puck low past Frank Doyle on the powerplay to bring the game to within a goal, just seven seconds into the second period.

At 26:12 the hosts almost levelled when former AHL forward and Greg Leeb lookalike Ryan Ginand struck the crossbar from the right wing slot, giving the Steelers something to think about.

The Steelers were slow to start the second period but soon found their feet again at the halfway mark, and began to dominate possession and eventually outshot the Blaze 19-8 in the middle stanza.

Both teams came out strong for the final period with the hosts outshooting the Steelers by 13-9.

The final nail in the Blaze coffin came at 45:34 when Steelers tough guy Tim Spencer found himself on a 2-on-1 with Jeff Legue. Spencer crisply passed to Legue who one-timed high past Zacharias shorthanded to make it 4-2.

Spencer would go on to take the Man of the Match plaudits for the visitors, demonstrating he has more in his arsenal than his pugilistic abilities by recording 3 assists. Ryan Ginand would claim the award for the hosts after registering 1+1 during a fine performance.

The Steelers hosted arch rivals the Nottingham Panthers 24 hours later in the newly refurbished Motorpoint Arena, garnering praise from the fans. It was to be the refurbishment that gained more praise, as the Steelers flattered to deceive with a poor under-par performance in front of a bumper crowd of 7328 fans.

Both teams exchanged early chances, but it was the visitors who took the lead due to some lax defending, when Matt Francis was all alone in front of the Steelers goal and he converted after a Leigh Salters pass to give his team a 1-0 lead at 06:39.

The Steelers pressed and almost restored parity when a Stefan Meyer slapshot went agonisingly wide at 08:10.

No further scoring followed in a fairly evenly contested first period between the two fierce rivals, one in which the Panthers narrowly outshot the hosts 8-7.

The second period started as a rather scrappy affair between the two sides until Panthers defenceman Steve Lee blasted home a ferocious slapshot high past a helpless Frank Doyle to double the visitor’s advantage at 25:08.

Tim Spencer - Sheffield Steelers v Nottingham Panthers 8/9/13

Heavyweights Brent Henley (left) and Tim Spencer square off (Image courtesy of Dean Woolley

The Steelers needed a change in momentum, so cue Tim Spencer who invited Panthers power forward Leigh Salters to drop the gloves, with the latter smartly declining due to his teams stronghold on the game.

A shift later and Spencer got his wish as 6’8 inch defenceman Brent Henley took Spencer up on his offer, with both men trading a couple of quick blows in a short and spirited bout with a score draw being the general consensus in the 26th minute.

The fight had the desired affect for the hosts as Cardiff-born forward Jonathan Phillips netted a powerplay marker, despite Panthers forward Chris Murray’s best intention to purposely nock the net off just three minutes later.

The momentum took a swing once again but in favour of the Panthers when netminder Craig Kowalski denied Steelers forward Maxime Lacroix with a superb glove save on a breakaway at 31:25.

Less than two minutes later the Panthers were gifted another goal due to some poor defending when Captain David Clarke was left alone in the slot to fire high blocker side past Frank Doyle to give his side a 3-1 lead.

The Panthers sat back in the third period, and despite being outshot by the Steelers 8-2, they thwarted the Steelers efforts with relative ease.

The game was all but done when Matt Francis grabbed his second of the game for the visitors to make it 4-1 at 52:54, securing him the Man of the Match award for a great performance, which could have gone to any one of the Panthers players.

The distance between the two teams geographically may only be 32 miles, but the performance from the Steelers suggested otherwise in the ability stakes.

Sheffield Steelers v Nottingham Panthers 8/9/13

Steelers celebrate a consolation goal from Jonathan Phillips (Image courtesy of Dean Woolley)

Steelers Head Coach Doug Christiansen offered his thoughts after the game, “It’s extremely disappointing. We had a great crowd and a great buzz when everyone came onto the ice and you don’t play very well. I told the players after the game I’ve seen them compete five times, and this was the only time I saw them not compete and play to the best of their ability,” Christiansen said.

“It’s not the right ratio, but this was early in the season and a Challenge Cup group game. We will pick ourselves up, we will get better, but tonight was very disappointing and we need to learn from it,” Christiansen added.

The Steelers kick off their Elite League campaign next weekend with a Scottish double header against Edinburgh and Dundee, in games where nothing less than two wins are required.

Contact the author at Scott.antcliffe@prohockeynews.com

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