THERE are 13 league matches left for Sheffield Steelers to pull off a remarkable title win.
For the last few weeks it has looked an increasingly unlikely prospect, with Nottingham seven points adrift of Sheffield at the top of the division.
But last night’s 5-2 victory at the Arena trimmed their advantage to five points.
And the 13 games remaining include two more against Nottingham and two against second-placed Belfast.
It is a tall order, but Sheffield cannot be counted out.
Steelers, who lost 4-2 to Panthers on January 20, carved out last night’s result on the back of some steadfast defending for the two periods, when they comprehensively shut out Nottingham’s offensive threat.
Steelers had to kill two minor penalties but they managed to blunt a Panthers’ attack based largely on Jordan Fox’s speed and creativity.
Fox skated through the pack at one point and fired a shot into John DeCaro’s face mask.
Matt Francis thought he’d scored the opener for the visitors at 10:56, firing across DeCaro and in off the far post.
But the referee Michael Hicks had already blown for offside. Sheffield edged ahead on the Power Play, three minutes later.
Rod Sarich and Jeff Legue passed the puck between each other before Legue lashed a slapshot home.
Legue improved on that with another super finish at 15:31; skating across the ice he opened his body up and fired top shelf for 2-0.
The important thing now was not to concede, but David Ling, allowed time behind Steelers’ net, picked his spot in the slot with his pass and Brandon Benedict despatched for Panthers.
Ashley Tait restored the two-goal margin, but Panthers enjoyed Cardiff-based referee Hicks’ inexplicable generosity at 16:47.
Video footage - available to Hicks on the Steelers’ bench but ignored - showed David Clarke’s effort had not crossed the line.
Hicks, who also ignored the goal judge, used a choice expletive in his refusal to watch the video clip.
Unsportsmanlike conduct - but this time from a match official!
Corey Nielson’s team, who had won come back from two goals to win at Coventry the previous night, were given the benefit of the doubt and the scoreboard showed 3-2, for Steelers.
Panthers’ goalie Craig Kowalski pulled off a remarkable save in the second period.
Shawn Limpright had cleverly set up Matt Stephenson, but his high shot was clawed to safety by the netminder’s glove.
Limpright was penalised for kneeing Robert Lachowicz, the Panthers forward hobbling out of the play for a while, with a left foot injury.
A big final period was needed for the home side.
Sheffield spent much of it clearing their zone as they exercised restraint and intelligent defending.
But when the chance arrived they attacked swiftly on the counter. The crowd had to wait until 58:50 for the insurance policy of a fourth goal, Scott Champagne scoring.
And then Steve Goertzen rounded off an excellent weekend with an empty netter.
n Goertzen celebrated his first Steeler hat-trick in Saturday’s 5-4 win at Braehead.
His side twice led by two goals at Braehead, but the Scots narrowed the advantage, leading to a nailbiting last few minutes.
Jonathan Phillips opened the scoring and then Jordan Krestanovich, the man Steelers wanted to sign, squared things up.
Goertzen got a brace on 13 and 24 minutes, but then Clan scored twice, through Matt Hanson and Ash Goldie.
Goertzen made it 4-3 and Rod Sarich and Goldie tied the final period.
Sheffield were value for the winning, outshooting their hosts 36-22.