SHEFFIELD, U.K. – The Sheffield Steelers knew they had a tough mountain to climb in Nottingham last night as they battled it out with old foes the Nottingham Panthers in the second leg of the Challenge Cup Final.
The Panthers already had a commanding 4-1 lead over their bitter rivals from the first leg in Sheffield twelve days ago, but they were looking to add further insult to injury and humiliate the South Yorkshire side.
The Steelers had to go into battle without their Head Coach Ryan Finnerty as he was assessed a match penalty in the teams last outing against the Coventry Blaze in the Playoffs, meaning he would watch the game from behind the plexi glass at the N.I.C.
The Steelers started their quest strongly, and almost took the lead in the fifth minute when Captain Jonathan Phillips mishandled the puck in front of an open net after a great pass from Steven Goertzen.
The game had its usual feisty nature, and things turned nasty when Panthers Captain Jordan Fox laid a badly timed and clumsy hipcheck on Steelers forward Simon Ferguson, resulting in the latter leaving the game to go to hospital for a lower body injury after just eight minutes.
The team rallied and almost made Fox pay when Ashley Tait forced a good save from Panthers netminder Craig Kowalski on the resulting powerplay at 9:31.
The hosts countered and had good chances of their own with Great Britain international David Clarke, forcing a good double save from Steelers netminder John DeCaro, who was rumoured to be playing in his last game for the team, with plans to retire from the sport over the summer.
At 15:06 the Panthers were gifted a 5-on-3 powerplay as Chris Frank was assessed a 2+10 for a checking to the head penalty, with Rod Sarich already sitting in the box for a cross-checking minor.
The Panthers shelled Steelers netminder John DeCaro, but the 30-year-old American stood firm to the test and thwarted the Panthers efforts with some resolute shot stopping, and some watertight defensive play from the men in front of him.
The excellent penalty kill from the Steelers gave them momentum as Lee Esders fired the visitors ahead with a well placed shot low past Kowalski just 32 seconds after the kill, to give his team a 1-0 lead at 17:38.
No further scoring followed in the first period, ensuring the Steelers went into the period break, the happier of the two teams, after a great first period performance.
Both teams came out strongly for an evenly contested second period, one in which the visitors hit the net first once again, this time courtesy of former NHL’er Steven Goertzen with a low wristshot at 23:13 to make it 2-0 and to reduce the aggregate arrears to one.
The Panthers were determined to protect their aggregate lead and pulled a goal back courtesy of the impressive Bruce Graham on the powerplay, whose wraparound effort beat John DeCaro five-hole at 30:10.
The Panthers came close to equalising when energetic forward Matt Francis forced DeCaro into making a good low leg pad save at 38:53.
Things got heated between the two teams in the dying seconds of the period, when Panthers forward Matt Francis and Steelers agitator Shawn Limpright traded blows, earning them coincidental roughing minors.
Both teams shared chances early on in the third period, and Sheffield thought they had scored when Tylor Michel fired the puck into a gaping Panthers goal, at the same time Steelers defenceman Chris Frank was upended by David Ling, causing the net to be displaced.
Referee Tom Darnell, washed out the goal, much to the bemusement of players and fans alike, during the tense affair, but the correct call was made on the play at 47:16.
Both teams pressed but the Panthers held firm as the clock ticked away ensuring they lifted the Challenge Cup trophy in front of a near 7,000 crowd with a 5-3 aggregate victory.
The Steelers put up a valiant performance, which was matched off the ice by their vocal travelling fans.
The Panthers now look strong favourites to complete ‘The Treble’ with the Playoff trophy this weekend, as they will take on the Cardiff Devils in the first semi final at 1PM on the Saturday, with the Coventry Blaze and Belfast Giants battling it out in the second semi final at 5pm.
The Victors will then face each other in the Playoff Final on Sunday afternoon.
ProHockeyNews will be at the Playoff weekend providing coverage on the action, so keep your eyes peeled on the website for the latest news.
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