EIHL League Title: A Fight to the Finish

Sheffield Steelers

The Elite League title returns to Sheffield this season, but the title race was down to the wire.  It was a fight to the finish for the Sheffield Steelers, Cardiff Devils and Braehead Clan.

Heading into the weekend of 14th March, Sheffield knew that if they won their remaining four games they would take the league.  Braehead similarly needed to win their remaining games, but had to hope the Steelers fell down in just one of those four.

Cardiff, coming from behind to challenge Sheffield and Braehead, had the same hope.  Of those four games left for each team Braehead had the easier run; Sheffield and Cardiff were to meet twice in what could have lost the league for both teams.

Sheffield’s four games started on Saturday 14th March with a home game against the Coventry Blaze.  With a strong finish to the season, Coventry were always going to be tough competition, but the end result was a 2-0 victory to the Steelers.  Cardiff came out of Hull with a 5-4 win, and Braehead topped the Edinburgh Capitals 5-1.  Three games to go, and there was no change in how the race was playing out.

Sunday 15th and Sheffield travelled to Cardiff in what could have been the most important game of the season.  Ben Bowns was the difference maker, with Cardiff’s forwards making the most of their 29 shots on goal in a 6-3 victory.  Sheffield was wondering if that one game would have sealed their fate, but rather unexpectedly the Edinburgh Capitals took the second game of the back-to-back against Braehead 2-1.  Two games to go, and there was still everything to play for, for all three teams.

Wednesday March 18th and Cardiff took on the Edinburgh Capitals on home ice.  The end of the first saw the Devils up 4-2 and they didn’t let go of that lead, eventually finishing the game 6-3 winners.  The Devils’ title hopes were still alive.

Friday 20th March and Sheffield travelled to Nottingham in a game they needed to win.  The match-ups for the two teams had been pretty even throughout the season, the Nottingham Panthers having the edge 6 wins to 5.  The Steelers hadn’t really turned up in their last big game – the Challenge Cup final going to Cardiff – and looked to be struggling here.

They ended the first period one goal down, which quickly became 2-0 at the start of the second.  A second period goal from Forney, and a shorthanded tally from Ben O’Connor evened the game going into the final period, until Panthers’ Captain Brandon Benedict put Nottingham up 12 minutes into the third.  Mathieu Roy stepped up to show why he’s a strong candidate for EIHL Player of the Year, hitting home an equaliser with three minutes to play.  With 13 seconds left in overtime Roy finished the game with a 4 on 3 goal after a late penalty on the Panthers.

Heading into the final weekend of the EIHL season, Sheffield needed to win their final game.  Cardiff needed to beat the Steelers to have a chance heading into their Sunday match-up against Nottingham.  Two wins would have given them the title.  Braehead needed to hope that the Devils came through against the Steelers and then lost to the Panthers, while taking both of their matches against Hull Stingrays and Fife Flyers.

Both teams aimed to win in Sheffield.  It turned out to be a very close, physical game, with neither team wanting to lose.  Although a tough game, there was just a single penalty in the game which paid tribute to both the players, and to the officials allowing them to fight it out – although not literally on this occasion.

Play shifted momentum from one team to the other, but first blood went to the Devils 10 minutes into the first period.  The Steelers risked a line change after sustained pressure from the Devils had kept them in their own zone.  The badly timed change gave the man advantage to Cardiff and there was little that Sheffield netminder Josh Unice could do about the shot from Carl Hudson.

Sheffield killed a late first period penalty that left them opening the second period a man down.  Robert Dowd seemed to be on a personal mission to ensure that the Steelers didn’t waste their opportunity to take the league.  Dowd played hard, finishing checks and chasing down pucks, and his goal seemed inevitable.  In what was probably the longest shift on the ice, the Steelers kept the Devils pinned in their zone, the line of Dowd, Tyler Mosienko and Captain Jonathan Phillips chasing and fighting for everything with Dowd eventually managing to get one past GB netminder Ben Bowns.  It seemed that if the Steelers hadn’t scored on that effort there was going to be nothing they could do to get anything past Bowns.  The second period ended 1-1.

The game could have gone either way, there was sustained pressure by both teams.  In the end the deciding factor was a goal five minutes into the third from the Steelers third line, Jeff Legue finishing off a pass from Phil Hill to put the Steelers ahead.  The game was far from over at that point, with both teams pushing hard it could easily have gone to overtime and a win to either side.  Bowns was pulled with 55 seconds left, but in the end the extra skater didn’t help against a Steelers team desperate enough to put their bodies on the line and take the win.

2-1 was the final score, and in what was the closest finish to the EIHL league in 11 seasons, the Steelers came out winners.

For the Devils and the Clan, there was still one thing to play for in their Sunday league games – a place in the Champions Hockey League, the European Champions League taking place at the end of summer.  Cardiff would need to beat the Panthers and hope Braehead lost to Fife.

Cardiff did everything they could do, convincingly beating the Panthers 7-2, but the second place spot, and Champions League qualifying position was Braehead’s to lose.  Braehead had a tougher time of it than expected in Fife, but a goal from Stefan Meyer in the third was enough to give Braehead a 3-2 victory, sealing second place in the league and that second CHL spot along with Sheffield.

Focus for the EIHL shifts now to the Playoffs.  The qualifying rounds start next weekend, the winners on aggregate of the two home/away legs head to the Playoff weekend of the 4th-5th April in Nottingham.

Sheffield v Fife

Braehead v Hull

Nottingham v Coventry

Cardiff v Belfast

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