SHEFFIELD, U.K. – The Sheffield Steelers headed to Coventry on Saturday evening to take on the Blaze in the first leg of the Playoff Quarter Final. It was the Blaze who progressed to the final four weekend last year at the expense of the Steelers with Shea Guthrie netting the overtime winner.
Guthrie sat out the game after being sidelined with a concussion sustained in a game against the Cardiff Devils a week earlier.
The Steelers were without tough guy Tim Spencer who sat out as the spare import. The move surprised many Sheffield fans, as they felt Spencer’s physical presence would be vital against a physical and feisty Blaze team.
Both teams came out the gates flying, and exchanged early chances in the opening minute.
The Steelers pressed and had a good opportunity early on with Chris Blight coming close with a nice wristshot from the right wing slot at 02:40.
Blaze countered immediately and had some good chances of their own with Ross Venus and Mike Devin both being denied by Steelers netminder Frank Doyle.
It was an end to end affair with Jeff Legue skating coast to coast and forcing Blaze netminder Mike Zacharias into making a strong led pad save close range at 4:58.
Sheffield should have taken the lead at 8:15 when Phil Hill capitalised on a defensive error in the Blaze zone and pounced on the puck in the slot, but he fired his shot wide.
The hosts soon took the lead at 9:28 on the powerplay courtesy of veteran forward Russ Cowley who fired a sublime wristshot high blocker side past Frank Doyle from the right wing to give his side a 1-0 lead.
Tempers were frayed at 12:06 when Steelers defenceman Chad Langlais and Blaze forward Gerome Giudice exchanged pleasantries at the Blaze blueline. At the same time Blaze agitator Kelsey Wilson decided to ruffle a few Steelers feathers with Jason Hewitt being his object of choice.
Referee Mike Hicks decided to hand all four players two minute minors for their troubles, as well as a two minute cross checking minor for Blaze defenceman Mike Egener for his original infraction on the play.
The visitors failed to capitalise on the ensuing powerplay with a single Jeff Legue chance being the only shot of conviction during the man advantage.
After a scrappy spell in the middle of the period, Sheffield offered a couple of chances late on with Stefan Meyer and Rob Dowd both came close at 18:47.
At 18:54 the SkyDome Arena was silenced as Steelers forward Jeff Legue took a nasty slapshot to the face from linemate Chris Blight in front of the net. After a nervy pause Legue made his way off the ice to the applause of the bumper crowd with a suspected broken jaw.
The visitors levelled shortly after when Jason Hewitt re-directed a superb pass from Chad Langlais glove side past Zacharias to restore parity with just 38 seconds of the period remaining.
Despite outshooting the Blaze by 25-9, both teams went into the first period break with a goal apiece.
The second period was once again a fast and frantic affair between the two sides, with both teams offering early chances and exhibiting a hard hitting fast-paced brand of hockey.
Sheffield took the lead for the first time in the game at 25:14 courtesy of Max Lacroix who’s low left wing shot beat Mike Zacharias on the near side to give his side a 2-1 lead.
The Blaze battled back and the Steelers lead was short lived as Gerome Giudice was perfectly placed to redirect a Kelsey Wilson shot low past Frank Doyle at to make it 2-2. At 30:51.
The subdued Sheffield fans were soon up on their feet once again as Captain Steven Goertzen fired his team back into the lead after a neat end to end goal less than two minutes after the Blaze equaliser.
The Steelers almost had a fourth when Robert Dowd was denied by a great low leg pad save from Zacharias at 34:14.
The hosts were handed a late powerplay after Jonathan Phillips was sent to the box on a hooking minor at 35:15.
The Blaze almost took advantage when Adam Henrich tested Frank Doyle with a goal bound one-timer at 36:42, but the American netminder was more than equal to the test.
The hosts went into the period break trailing the Steelers by a goal, despite narrowly outshooting them by 10-8 in an evenly contested middle period.
Both teams came out strongly for the third period, with both Robert Dowd and the Blaze’s Michael Henrich exchanging early chances in the opening two minutes.
Sheffield came close once again at 45:34 when Steven Goertzen cut in from the left wing in front of goal and tested Zacharias with a great backhand effort.
At 48:50 the Steelers had the Blaze on the back foot when Danny Meyers broke down the left wing on a breakaway, but the Steelers blueliner fired his backhand shot wide.
The Blaze countered immediately with Michael Henrich forcing Doyle into making a great low leg pad save blocker side.
The Blaze spurred on by their vocal fans, almost grabbed an equaliser when Elite League top scorer Ryan Ginand fired narrowly over from close range at 52:58.
The Blaze fans were on the edge of their seats at 56:02 when impressive forward Adam Henrich skated through the Steelers D and his shot trickled past Doyle’s near side post.
Blaze Head Coach Marc Lefebvre called a timeout at 58:52 in a desperate hope to rally his troops and grab a late equaliser ahead of Tuesday’s second leg.
Despite a late fight back from the Blaze, the Steelers hung on to their slender 3-2 lead to take an impressive and hard fought win at the final buzzer.
Steelers Head Coach Gerad Adams offered his thoughts on the game, “I think we should enjoy this for a couple of hours. I think we played a good enough hockey game to win. It was unfortunate to lose Jeff Legue early like that, but I was happy with the mental toughness to get through that and everybody played well,” Adams said.
The Steelers will take a one-goal lead into Tuesday’s return leg at the Motorpoint Arena, which will be sure to be another fast and physical encounter between the two rivals.
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