Steelers close in on leaders

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Sheffield Steelers 4 Nottingham Panthers 2

STEELERS overcame some mental barriers last night, moving to seven points behind leaders Belfast Giants, with five games in hand.

Sheffield went into the Panthers’ clash trying to heal the psychological scars of being beaten five times this season by their deadly rivals.

They outshot them in first and last periods to stake a two-goal victory and leave third place Panthers well off the championship pace, after their third straight defeat.

Nottingham have played five games more than Sheffield and must now wait to see which of the superpowers, Steelers or Giants, take the season’s top prize.

Yet Steelers were rocked on their heels after 91 seconds when David Clarke scored for the visitors.

That was the signal for a fight involving Panthers’ American defenceman Brock Wilson and Ryan Finnerty, the Sheffield player coach’s second scrap in two games.

Like his first, at Coventry on Sunday, it did the world of good, as he sat in the penalty box to watch his side level at 2:21.

It was a triumphant return for Colt King, dropped from the side last Sunday, who scored after set-up play from linemates Jeff Legue and Mike Ramsay.

Steelers then drilled in two shots for every one of the visitors but had to be content with going in at the first interval at 1-1.

Ramsay looked likely to add to their tally but his effort struck Craig Kowalski’s post.

It was defenceman Steve Birnstill, with his seventh goal of the season, that put the Arena side ahead at the halfway point. Jason Hewitt, who has scored four assists in the last four games, had a hand in the strike, but it was soon cancelled out for 2-2 by the highly skilled Nottingham forward Robert Lachowicz.

With Matt Stephenson taking a 10-minute misconduct, Sheffield playmaker Legue found himself increasingly having to spend his time helping out defensively.

Yet Finnerty’s one-man campaign to get this team moving gave Steelers the lead for the second time, at 46.19.

And despite Legue’s 10 minute misconduct, with three and a half minutes remaining, Sheffield stayed in charge, with Jonathan Phillips delighting the crowd with an empty-netter at the death. There are still issues to settle however.

Former Steelers defenceman Andre Malo, sat in the stands, was confused how “soft” Steelers defenceman played along the boards. That is something Finnerty can perhaps mull over before the sides meet again in Nottingham on Saturday.