Sheffield Steelers 2 Nottingham Panthers 4 (Sunday)
Steelers 4 Coventry Blaze 2 (Saturday)
STEELERS’ owner Tony Smith had spoken of the “the weekend that might determine who will win the title.”
Today he will be hoping he over-exaggerated the importance.
Certainly Sunday’s loss to Nottingham has deeply wounded Sheffield’s chances of overhauling the division pacesetters.
And Notts are again seven points ahead of their South Yorkshire rivals after sealing victory with two late goals.
Panthers had been hammered 9-4 on the same ice on December 27 and were intent on gaining some New Year revenge.
And it took the visitors just 58 seconds to get on the score sheet.
Goalie John DeCaro drifted behind his own net to clear his lines, got caught out and presented an open net to centreman Jordan Fox.
DeCaro - derided by the visiting fans as a ‘dodgy keeper’ - recovered his composure catching a Brandon Benedict effort, deflecting a Stephen Lee shot wide and stopping the towering figure of Bruce Graham skating into his crease.
Sheffield were given a couple of power plays and managed to equalise on one of them at 7.50 Tylor Michel converting from Scott Champagne’s feed.
But Bruce Graham’s shot from the left flank - just 47 seconds later, flashed across DeCaro and under his outstretched right leg.
Chris Frank was lucky not to get penalised for elbowing an opponent as frustration started to creep in.
Panthers could have got another, but Benedict’s tip hit the outside of the post at 12;04.
Sheffield conceded three minor penalties in the middle session and so had to withstand a fair amount of pressure.
DeCaro held firm though, his best save off his blocker from Jonathan Weaver on 26 minutes.
The home side emerged from their defensive shell to equalise, for a second time.
Steve Goertzen fired in a low, hard right-wing cross, which seemed at first to deflect past Craig Kowalski off his own man, Eric Werner. But it was eventually awarded to Shawn Limpright, who got the final touch.
Tait then hit the inside of the post - there were some suggestions the puck may have crossed the line - but it remained 2-2 at the second break.
It was a tense game - if not exactly packed with incident.
At one stage, Simon Ferguson delivered a big mid-ice hit on Kelsey Wilson - the foe who had sticked him in the stomach on their last meeting. They later fought each other.
Defences were largely on top.
Nottingham, in particularly, did everything to block the puck whenever danger loomed. And they survived their points tallyman David Ling serving a 2+10 for checking Ferguson from behind.
A moment of magic was needed.
Yet in the end, the game was decided by a refereeing mistake.
A large gap opened up between Matt Stephenson and Shawn Limpright in the slot. That was because Mark Thomas had been sticked in the face - a clear foul missed by the referee. And GB star David Clarke strolled in to roof the puck home at 52;54 - when a penalty call against Panthers shoudl have been called.
Four minutes later, with Steelers chasing the game, Ling beat DeCaro with a low shot to his near post.
It was game over.
*Steelers seem to have had little difficulty against Coventry this season and they swept Paul Thompson’s side away relatively comfortably, on Saturday.
Ferguson was the dominating performer, notching twice, including the all important third goal, which consigned Blaze to their fourth straight away defeat.
Ferguson struck first with the first of Sheffield’s two PP goals,at 9.50.
Coventry responded 15 seconds later via Brad Leeb.
Tylor Michel repaid his coach Ryan Finnerty’s continuing faith in him by getting the only goal of the second session and his sixth in four games.
Ferguson, looked confident and at home in only his 13th games for the club, added his second, followed by Jeff Legue just 25 seconds later.
Coventry outshot Steelers by one attempt in the last period, Dustin Cameron getting on the scoreboard three minutes left.
Drew Fata fought Benn Olson, receiving a 5 plus games for fighting, plus some praise from Finnerty for holding his own with the League’s top heavyweight.