The last home game of the league season...and it won’t be any old last game either.
Enter the Nottingham Panthers, in a match that might see Steelers retain an Elite League championship in the most incredible of circumstances.
Steelers need two wins against Nottingham and then in Fife on Sunday. Do that and they will have reached an incredible 70 points, a tally that can only be matched by Cardiff. The problem is that if the Devils also hit 70 points they will pinch the Elite League title on regulation wins, or if that is tied then on results between the two sides.
First the Steelers lost their starting goalie Tyler Plante, then former NHLer Mike Duco. Shortly after, the club’s most gifted player, Colton Fretter, was sidelined – and remains out. Steelers’ most irreplaceable player, Robert Dowd, has twice been out injured with broken bones and damaged knees.
That Steelers remain in the title race shows what a group of staff and players the club has.
In Nottingham last Saturday, with the Panthers playing for their season, it was win or bust in their title dreams. Sheffield’s players were warriors to a man.
Much maligned goalie Marek Pinc answered the critics with a stunning display. Power forward Guillaume Desbiens, though, summed up the night’s incredible performance. The Panthers on a 5-3 powerplay; Steelers’ backs against the wall; shots reigning in from all directions. In one shift Desbiens won a battle on the boards against two opponents and cleared the puck feet down the ice. In a wave of attacks Panthers responded; in that same shift Desbiens twice threw his body in front of full-on slap shots. Shot one to the side of the knee, shot two in the ribcage.
Steelers gained momentum from the penalty kill. Players stood on the bench. Fans moved forward to sit on the edge of their seats. This championship was on.
Before games, during games and after games the ice pack is Zack Fitzgerald’s best friend. His hands, his body beat up from eight months of constant assault.
Yet again, his gloves drop to the ice as he stands up for his team. The Panthers are a goal down, their coach Corey Neilson is asking for a fire to be lit and Cam Janssen believes he is the man to deliver. Fitzgerald, not for the first time, is the man to dampen out the Panthers flame as these two heavyweights trade blows.
One year ago, in a similar situation, the Steelers trailed by a goal in Nottingham in another must-win game. Mathieu Roy scored to tie the game late on. He scored again with 12 seconds remaining in overtime. On Saturday the warrior of all warriors turned the clock back. Plagued with knock after knock, injuries, bruises and strains, Roy knew his team needed him more than ever. A bullet for 2-0 and a typical Roy battle led to his second for 3-0. The man who gets whacked, hacked and sawn in half on a nightly basis got up, replied in the best way with a brace. Steelers win 4-2. Nottingham’s league season is over.
This has been a tough year at the helm for Paul Thompson. He has faced pressure, but has never buckled and stayed positive throughout. At times he has nursed his side, at times loved them and at times driven them harder than they have ever been driven before. Thompson will plot and manoeuvre.
All the way to the League title, we hope.
Meanwhile, look at Pinc’s form, now.
He showed me in Nottingham that he cares, he wants it as much as we all do. When he has had tough times this year, he hasn’t hidden once.
In fact, the opposite. He has come out first, come out stronger. I love that attitude.
This former Czech international might not be the stud he once was but he isn’t finished and he is ready for one more hurrah – in the trenches, in the battle. Where the real men are, you will find Marek.
What a weekend we have to look forward to. Our club, our team, our very special players putting it on the line once more for us, trying to deliver the ultimate goal, a league title.