I pen this week’s article on the Monday morning after an incredible weekend of games for the Steelers against the Belfast Giants. It was a weekend that was memorable for numerous reasons, some good and some bad, but the main consensus for us all at the final buzzer, we get to do this all again next month in the Northern Irish capital. The quirks of the fixture list.
When Adam Keefe’s Belfast Giants arrived in Sheffield on Saturday, they were still on their marathon road trip: they won’t be back on home ice in domestic action until 9 December when they host Cardiff; a run of 16 consecutive away league games. That’s some road trip, even the NHL isn’t that bad. The team news on Saturday saw Matt Climie get the nod in the net for the Steelers who also welcomed back defenceman Aaron Johnson after a lengthy injury absence. Giants started with Tyler Beskorowany in goal with Stephen Murphy backing him up whilst 4oo plus game former NHLer Patrick Dwyer, defenceman Guillaume Gélinas, British forwards Matt Towe and Colin Shields and netminder Andrew Dickson sat it out.
The large away support, which had been in fine voice in the pub and on their “march” to the FlyDSA Arena, saw their team make a bright start and force the Steelers on the back foot. Steelers did go close to opening the scoring when Josh McFadden hit the pipework, forced Beskorowany in some smart saves but it was really the Giants who were posing the questions. They took the lead at 12:20 when Giants skipper Blair Riley fired on goal from a Jim Vandermeer pass, and the puck rebounded to David Rutherford who simply couldn’t miss from close range. Rutherford went close to doubling his and the Giants tally but Climie produced a smart pad save to deny him.
Whatever Tom Barrasso said to the Steelers in that period break has soon got to be bottled and sold in the Steelers Store as the home side came out much more determined in the middle period. They got an early reward with the leveller at 24:55 thanks to a powerplay marker from winger Robert Dowd who arrowed one into the corner of Beskorowany’s goal with just 12 seconds left on the Francis Beauvillier infraction. Buoyed by this, Steelers continued to press and rattle the leaders, Ryan Martinelli (who along with Jackson Whistle was getting an earful of stick from the Giants support) and Kendall McFaull had words at one stage as things started to heat up but that middle period ended up with a 1-1 scoreline and all to play for in the final twenty.
Whoever scored the next goal would probably go on and win the game it was generally thought, and just 106 seconds in – Belfast got it thanks to Beauvillier but there was still time on the Steelers side. Almost midway through, the Giants got what they thought was an insurance goal when good work behind the net from Rutherford saw him pick his skipper Riley alone and unattended in the slot to go five hole on Climie for 1-3. Yet Steelers refused to buckle, and got back within one when Eric Neiley scored his first goal since returning with a delicious snipe top shelf on a penalty shot awarded for an infraction on him by Josh Roach. Both sides had chances after that with Roach denied on a 2 on 1 by Climie, and then Josh Pitt hitting the post. Steelers gambled with the extra attacker but the game was secured for the Giants when Darcy Murphy fired in from centre ice with 11 seconds left to end game one 4-2 in the leaders favour.
Less than 24 hours later, it was time for Game Two. A lot of the Giants fans were nursing sore heads after a night’s partying in a Sheffield nightspot which made for an interesting sight as they weren’t as noisy as they had been on the Saturday. Both sides made one change from Saturday, Jackson Whistle (subject of a really uncalled for chant) started in the net for the Steelers in place of Climie as Barrasso continued to rotate his goalies whilst Giants made a change on the blueline as Vandermeer was replaced by Gélinas.
If the Giants fans had been out partying the night before, their team appeared to be punch drunk as the Steelers made probably one of their most explosive starts to a game since Barrasso took charge. With exactly four minutes played, Pitt charged down the wing and pulled the play back for line-mate Dowd who arrived in the slot to beat Beskorowany. Tanner Eberle almost added a second as Steelers continued to push forward but for the Giants it was just respite as that second did arrive at 6:35; Jonas Westerling with the pass and despite seeing Beskorowany save his initial effort, Dowd snapped home the rebound for his seventh goal in his last four games and take him up to ten goals in just 16 games.
Whistle was standing tall at the other end of the ice, making those who were heckling him eat their words. The Giants were lucky to go into that first period break just two goals adrift and to be honest, it really flattered them such was the Steelers dominance. There was no let up in the middle period either as Steelers continued to create chance after chance whilst defending stoically in their own zone. Goal number three came at 23:07, McFadden’s blue line effort trickling home even though I thought that Anthony DeLuca got that all important touch in front of Beskorowany. The middle period also saw Steelers forced into a defensive reshuffle when Davey Phillips went down the tunnel in serious pain, reports post-game hinted that the Beverley-born blueliner picked up either a dislocated shoulder or a broken wrist in several places putting the rest of the season for him in jeopardy.
It’s been said amongst the Steelers fan base that Barrasso is a tactical genius, and that theory went really up in estimation when he pulled off a masterstroke with just 28:33 played. With his team on a 5 on 3 powerplay, Barrasso used his time out to get instructions out to his powerplay unit and it paid dividends just 50 seconds afterwards when Ben O’Connor blasted home from the blue line after patient play involving Dowd, Mark Matheson and the eventual goalscorer. That said Whistle was still resisting his old club but they managed to get on the board at 34:49 when Jonathan Ferland picked out Beauvillier in the slot and he made no mistake. This gave the Giants impetus but Whistle was right back on it, and the second period ended 4-1 in the Steelers favour.
With one eye obviously on Wednesday when they travel to Renfrew to face the Clan, Steelers played what appeared to be smart and responsible hockey in the final period. Both sides had chances to improve their goal tallies but some good solid goaltending was keeping that scoreline intact. The Giants did though get the final goal of the game to ensure the symmetrical scoreline on a split weekend, Riley scoring his second goal of the weekend on the powerplay with 57 seconds left as Pitt sat a slashing minor. It certainly had been a classic couple of games with both teams giving it everything, and therefore sets the scene for two more classics in the Odyssey on the first weekend of the New Year. I personally can’t wait.