It was the opening weekend of the 2018-19 Elite League campaign when the Cardiff Devils aim for a historic three-peat. For five time winners Sheffield Steelers and Milton Keynes Lightning who were starting just their second season in the top flight, it promised to be an interesting start. Both sides have undergone a massive reshuffle of their packs, but who would end up on top after this double header?
The match ups last season saw both the Steelers and the Lightning come away with two wins apiece, and on home ice too. Steelers had 16 new faces making their home EIHL debuts, whilst there was just James Griffin left in the Lightning roster from last season. Steelers had no injury worries but Lightning were missing defencemen Martin Mazanec and Nelson Armstrong. They also iced four former Steelers from last season: Andreas Valdix, Cole Shudra (pressed into action as an emergency defenceman), Tim Wallace and Eric Neiley whom many Steelers fans wished was still back in orange after such an impressive short stint in the second half of last season.
After a close first ten minutes or so, Patrick Killeen was the busiest of the two netminders which was going to be a regular feature of the game itself. Steelers were pressing but not getting anything to reward themselves, however Lightning looked quick in transition and were always a threat. That threat became real at 11:08 when the visitors opened the scoring, a loose puck was seized upon by Valdix and he wristed a nice effort over the shoulder of Whistle and top corner. Steelers were stunned, and they were stunned even further at 13:40 when Lightning sent their large contingent of fans in delirium with a second goal. Wallace found line mate Neiley all alone at the far post, a failure all too common for the Steelers, and he had the simplest task of lighting the lamp. The old boys had certainly come back to haunt Paul Thompson.
A quick response was needed and Steelers got it within 21 seconds after that Neiley strike, defenceman Aaron Johnson with his first goal for the team. No further goals followed in the remaining six minutes of that opening period and Lightning headed into the locker room holding that slender advantage. The second period followed a similar pattern with Steelers on the offensive and Lightning defending with resolution.
Just before the halfway point, Lightning defenceman James Griffin initiated a late hit on Steelers captain Jonathan Phillips. Phillips’ team mate Chris Lawrence was far from happy and gave out retribution; Lawrence getting 2+10 for his part and a fighting major and Griffin 2+10 for the late hit and a fighting major.
Could Steelers gain energy from this?
Yes they could as they drew level at 31:15 with a great effort by Justin Buzzeo that the former Pittsburgh Penguins netminder draft pick never moved for.
There was still danger at the other end of the ice and Lightning went back in front with 1:15 left in that middle period. Finn Joonas Huovinen finding twine at the back post which sneaked in low at Whistle’s blocker side. For some reason the goal light didn’t come on but it was a good goal. Lightning celebrated albeit slightly muted. Steelers had to come back again but Killeen was in no mood to let the hosts have a route back into the game.
Whatever they threw at him, he denied whilst Whistle was also having to work hard too as the Lightning still looked dangerous on the counter attack. Steelers couldn’t find that goal which would put them back on parity and their night was compounded when star British forward Robert Dowd skated off in pain in the final stages.
A tremendous road win for the Lightning but not the start Steelers wanted in front of a 9000 plus crowd.
So onto Sunday. Lightning had Steelers number in 17-18 down in Buckinghamshire and they drew first blood in the game when Neiley was again on target against his former club; converting on the man advantage at 8:32 with Wallace again assisting as the returning Davey Phillips sat a roughing minor.
Steelers, who were without Dowd as expected, levelled with a powerplay goal of their own with 2:39 left in that opening period – Evan McGrath finding the top of Killeen’s cage after good work involving Johnson and Jordan Owens. No further scoring ensued and the teams ended that opening period level at 1 apiece.
A scoreless middle section followed which meant it was all to play for in the final period, who could take advantage?
Steelers took the first blood, with a second powerplay strike. As Griffin sat a hooking minor, Owens and Johnson again turned creators and this time it was Josh Pitt who was on target for his first goal for the club.
Yet Lightning weren’t behind for long, 14 seconds to be precise, as David Norris drew them level. Steelers though were again outshooting their opponents, and regained the lead at 44:09 with Pitt scoring a delayed penalty goal for his second of the evening. With just over 10 minutes left, the advantage was extended to 4-2 when McGrath joined Pitt on a double goal haul to give the Steelers a bit of breathing space. Try as they could, Lightning couldn’t breach the Steelers again and a fifth goal arrived for Paul Thompson’s team with 4:08 left: Pitt scoring once more for his hat-trick goal. There was no further scoring after that, Steelers taking the honours 5-2.
So a split weekend, and plenty to ponder on for both camps. Steelers next game is at home to Fife on Wednesday when a home win could see them take over in top spot; whilst Lightning are next in action on Saturday when they face local rivals Coventry in the Challenge Cup on home ice.