'Best fans in Europe' celebrate first Sheffield Steelers' trophy in four years

It is one down - two to go, for Sheffield Steelers and their delirious 9,000 fans.
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Their midweek Challenge Cup Final win over Guildford Flames brought the trophy to the Arena for the first time since 2020.

Unsung defenceman Brien Diffley played a huge part in doing so.

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But the importance of the 3-1 victory on Wednesday goes way beyond that 100 per cent successful Cup campaign.

It underlines this all-star line-up can from now on be characterised as winners. Every one of them.

After sinking their teeth into Guildford, they have the taste for more.

Now they will almost certainly go on and make it a double with the League championship - they are on cruise control at 11 points ahead of the pack - and then tackle the Play Offs for a possible Grand Slam.

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The Cup might not be the most important trinket of the three, but it was always going to be one of their priorities, as shown by the unstoppable 10-match winning run on the way to the Final.

Challenge Cup winners 2024 Pic Dean WoolleyChallenge Cup winners 2024 Pic Dean Woolley
Challenge Cup winners 2024 Pic Dean Woolley

Sheffield had won it five times previously and were full of fire and determination for this one.

That translated to an unusual first goal, Diffley driving in from deep after just two minutes to execute Robert Dowd's pass.

It was "the worst possible start" Guildford's boss Paul Dixon admitted later.

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Bradley Lalonde brought Flames back into it at 13:48 but Steelers won the period with a power play goal from Patrick Watling, which arrived just at the right time, with 19 seconds left in the period.

Fizzy celebrations at Sheffield Arena Pic Dean WoolleyFizzy celebrations at Sheffield Arena Pic Dean Woolley
Fizzy celebrations at Sheffield Arena Pic Dean Woolley

The momentum was swinging Sheffield's way.

Mitchell Balmas, who started the night 10 points clear of any team-mate in goals and assists and is a contender for player of the season, made it 3-1 at 24:35, getting his stick to Diffley's shot, as Sheffield eased control of the Final.

Flames' roster knew they'd have to come up with something pretty special after the second break.

Guildford are 25 points behind Steelers in the league table yet they were outshooting the home side two-to-one.

Patrick Watling celebrates v Guildford Pic Dean WoolleyPatrick Watling celebrates v Guildford Pic Dean Woolley
Patrick Watling celebrates v Guildford Pic Dean Woolley

That's all well and good.

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But they were up against Steelers' impeccable goaltender Matt Greenfield, who for the fifth time in 10 outings recorded a save ratio more than 96 per cent. He stopped 34 of 35 attempts on his net.

Dixon said his men were ultimately chasing the game against a team that "is so strong in all departments.

"Congratulations to Sheffield, they deserve to be where they are...they are such a tough team to break down" he said.

Steelers' forward Marco Vallerand says the season had been an amazing ride in which virtually everything had fallen into place.

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Now he and his mates have to sustain their performance levels a little longer, to lift more silverware for the fans for the final pieces of the jigsaw come together.

Those Orange Army supporters were crowned "The Best fans in Europe" by d-man Dominic Cormier after the emotionally-charged Arena balcony celebration...and they will doubtless have plenty more to cheer before the 2023-4 season is over.