Devils 6 – 3 Steelers
After a perplexing defeat away to Sheffield on Sunday, when the Devils dominated most of the play, outshot the home side by a considerable margin, but still came away with nothing, there was a sense that tonight they wanted to rectify any impression of crumbling under the title pressure. It took less than a minute for this to be evidenced, when the top line pressured, Fournier skated through and his first shot bounced off the mask of Moose, to present him with the rebound opportunity. Shortly after Faryna and Neiley dropped gloves and exchanged rapid fire punches which was again an early indication that the Devils were up for any physical exchanges. The Devils dominated much of the first period and it took until 10 minutes for the Steelers to gain any consecutive offensive zone plays, culminating in a save from Bowns off Marquardt. On a Devils powerplay Myers camped himself in front of Moose, and infuriated Ronnberg with his nigly presence. As the PP wore down a slapshot from Haddad in the slot seemed to take a deflection past Moose to make it 2-0. The period ended with a wraparound try from Roy but this was snuffed out by Bowns and the Devils deservedly took a two goal advantage into the break.
The second started with almost a replay of the opening minute of the first, with Fournier driving it in from distance, Haddad following up with a backhand attempt which spilled to Martin to tap in on the edge of the crease. This undid any team talk Thompson had given at the break, and the Steelers looked second best to everything. Their dejection was compounded when nearing the five minute mark Hotham broke through and as he was tumbling to the ice scooped his stick around the puck and it sidled through Mustukov’s 5 hole and crawled over the line. That marked the end of the Sheffield netminder’s night and he was swapped out for Brad Day. Thompson called a timeout, and it was apparent that the thrust of this was “rough them up”. Fournier took a penalty, and Roy scored on the PP. Bowns was then clattered by Roy, and Ulmer stepped up to defend him, taking a penalty for his troubles. The Steelers have a long charge sheet for running netties so it is difficult to see any of these incidents as one-offs. Richie took a late hit from Dowd on the boards and went down. This may not have had any direct influence on the Devils, but it certainly gave the Steelers an extra bounce and their best period of pressure followed on a PP, with shots raining in on Bowns and the defence unable to clear, until O’Connor fired past the oncoming Haddad to give the Steelers another goal. As if to epitomise the instructions from Thommo at the time out, when Tom Darnell was taken out and getting to his feet, Phillips took advantage of his distraction to floor Benti. It wasn’t overtly dangerous, a shove more than a punch, but it was aimed at gaining a retaliation. However, it was the Devils who finished the period on top when their powerplay unit proved effective after Benti ghosted past a couple of defenders and slid it across for Asselin to finish backhanded by the far post.
The Devils started the third period leading 5-2, but this was reduced to 5-3 when Nelson arrived unmarked in the circle to smash home after 3 minutes. The aggressive play from the Steelers threatened to spill over here when Hotham was boarded behind the net by Fitzy, and crumpled to the floor with the type of hit that can end a player’s career. The Devils were in a conundrum here – having seen Benti penalised for retaliating they didn’t want to waste this opportunity to capitalise on the penalty, but also every time they failed to retaliate only gave the Steelers licence to continue. In the end they made the right call, as Fournier scored on the subsequent powerplay, effectively ending the game. When Fitzgerald attempted a hit on Ulmer by the boards, the Devils’ player shrugged him off dismissively and Fitzy came away clutching his face. A subsequent scrap in front of Day with Crowder saw the refs struggling to retain players on the benches from spilling onto the ice. The came petered out from here though, and the Devils claimed one of the two wins they needed to clinch the title.
This game highlighted two key features of the Devils season. The first was that on pure skill level, they are far ahead of their rivals. The second was how do rivals respond to this? While many Devils fans were outraged by the dirty play from the Steelers, it also demonstrated something that they have complained about from the Devils perspective, the lack of a plan B. Halfway through the game it was clear that the Steelers weren’t going to compete on skill, so Thompson rightly (from his perspective) changed tactics. The new approach was to get under the skin of the Devils players, knock them off their stride, draw penalties. And it worked to an extent in that they claimed three goals after this intervention. But equally, the Devils, after taking a few penalties for retaliation knew that they wouldn’t get a sympathetic hearing from the refs, so decided to simply continue outplaying Sheffield.