Sheffield Steelers end 2019 in top spot despite injury woes
You have to wonder how much safer Sheffield Steelers would be at the top of the EIHL division if they hadn't suffered their almost-unprecedented injury toll this season.
Saturday night's first victory of the season (at their fifth attempt) at Manchester Storm came despite seeing Marco Vallerand and Ben O'Connor stripped from the roster through upper body issues, joining John Armstrong and Robert Dowd out, as well as the longer-term defensive casualties.
Any lack of firepower was not obvious in the first period at Altrincham, when they scored all their goals in an eventual 4-3 win.
But after that, Sheffield hung on to the game with a defence bolstered by the return of Jonas Liwing, who had not set foot on competitive ice since an arm injury suffered in the first minute against Cardiff Devils in September.
Eric Meland and Anthony DeLuca had to overcome injury problems in this hard-fought win, but the fitness team at Sheffield Arena are in for a busy time ahead of the New Year's Eve trip to Nottingham Panthers.
Saturday's win means Aaron Fox's side will not be overtaken in the top spot as they enter the year 2020.
Storm coach Ryan Finnerty felt his side dominated throughout describing it as "men against boys."
Yet his men couldn't beat the juniors, which must rankle him, especially after being hammered 7-0 by Sheffield on Boxing Day.
Fox criticised Saturday's 0-1 middle period where his team was 'out-worked' but overall felt his side adapted well, and did well to kill penalties.
"It is a nice little run we are on, right now, even through these injuries, it shows a ton of heart from our group" he said.
Steelers scored on a sixth minute 5-on-3 power play through Anthony DeLuca and added to that six minutes later with Lucas Sandstrom beating Matt Ginn.
Cameron Critchlow brought Sheffield down to earth with a Manchester goal, but Sandstrom back-handed his second (the first time he's bagged a brace for Sheffield) at 13:33.
When Brendan Connolly scored for 4-1 at 16:53, you wondered whether the Storm web-stream commentator regretted his earlier words: "I wouldn’t want to be in white and orange tonight.”
But American winger Mario Puskarich scored twice meaning Sheffield had to hang on in a goal-less last session.
Fox concluded: “As we head into the games with Nottingham we need as many bodies back as possible. We will assess Marco and Benny, hopefully, Armstrong won’t be too much longer and Aaron Johnson too is close to a return. They can’t come back soon enough.”