Devils 5 – 6 Steeler (OT)
The playoff final for 2017 was televised on the BBC red button. Any casual viewers tuning into this game will have wondered why they ever bothered with other sports.
Having sent Bowns home in crutches a few weeks ago, and put Wiikman in hospital last weekend, the Steelers certainly seem to have an unfortunate knack of injuring netminders. A more cynical person might suspect it was a deliberate tactic. When after 30 seconds Armstrong collapsed onto Bowns, causing him a worrying injury, it was not just the cynics who would view it so. On the ensuing PP a lay off from Hotham to Doucet saw the latter finish with a sweeping shot to give the Devils the early lead. There was a quick reply from the Steelers however when the Devils surrendered the puck in mid-ice and Armstrong (who was certainly in the thick of things) pinged past Bowns from the boards unassisted. Of course, had he got a game penalty for the deliberate charge on Bowns, he wouldn’t have been on the ice, we mused.
The Steelers had a few two on one breaks with Bowns holding firm, but Fournier and Hotham began to get forward more. The Steelers were more effective at getting to the net and showed more pace. With five minutes to go, Culligan shot wide from in the slot and Hotham was firing in hoping for someone to get a tip in. Then Haddad broke free, raced up the ice, looked to pass, but was nestled in his own confidence and fired past Moose. The from the face off the Devils broke again and Lord from the back board set up Martin with seconds remaining to give the Devils a dream 3-1 lead at the end of the first.
The second period started with a careless too many men penalty from the Devils, which affected their momentum. The Devils could afford to be patient, but the Steelers persistence was rewarded with a goal from Walker to Bowns’s left. The Devils had barely managed an attack, and so took a time out in order to remove some of the urgency from the Steelers’ momentum. This proved ineffectual as Fretter equalised for them when the Devils failed to put in any sufficient challenges. The Devils finally began to push but this only resulted in a penalty for Brine. The inexorable progress of Sheffield to a lead was the result. A pass from behind their own net to mid ice saw Ulmer in front of goal to equalise again. But the Steelers dream period was not done yet and they got a fifth, from Walker again, who had proven an effective late season signing. Carrying their netminder tactics to new levels, Andrew Hotham was slewed as he skated past the bench and went off injured, but it was unseen by either ref (but not video cameras). This led to a fight between Roy and Louis, with the intensity now threatening to spill over.
The third period saw Hotham return and from the tightest of angles he squeezed it past Moose, to equalise again. The venomous look he gave the Steelers bench afterwards told you everything you need to know about the animosity between the two teams. The Devils now pushed for a winner, and put in more checks in the first five minutes than they had managed in the whole of the second period. The Steelers looked rattled now, but the period evened out as Cardiff could not find a winner. The last five minutes was a manic, end to end staccato series of chances, saves, blocked shots and body checks. At times you wondered if your heart could take the strain. It ended 5-5, and with no reduction in team sizes, the overtime would be played in twenty minute periods until a goal was scored.
The first period of OT started with an early break from Martin who couldn’t finish. Then a clash of sticks in front of Bowns saw the puck bobble off his chest. Then a last gasp pad save from Bowns. Then another where he stopped it under his body. Then a physics defying toe save. The Devils passing was getting sloppy as the players tired. It was reminiscent of the overtime in the Challenge Cup last year. “I’ll keep you in it,” Bowns was saying, “just get that one chance”. With a few minutes remaining the players looked exhausted. Even the irrepressible Haddad, who at times this year has single handedly dragged the Devils from a quagmire of doubt with his will to win, limped half heartedly towards a loose puck. The period ended goalless, taking us into a fifth. The bars and food halls closed in the rink. We’re in for the long haul.
The fifth period saw a law of diminishing returns. The netminders had not tired as much as the rest, making scoring less likely. Bowns continued to perform heroics, and when the Devils had a two on one break with Haddad and Asselin, they chose the wrong option, in a situation they would have finished under normal conditions. Offside calls occurred with regularity as players struggled to coordinate those fine decisions. This was like two boxers at the end of Rocky movie just slugging out on instinct now. The puck was intercepted by the Steelers and Cardiff’s tired defence couldn’t respond in time and Nelson put the puck in the top shelf to win the game.
This was an epic, marvellous contest between the two best teams in the league, which could have gone either way. You would like to believe in those sporting cliches of respect and mutual admiration between teams when they go through something like this. But, true to their nature. Fitzgerald tweets “Hahahahahahaha” and the Steelers official account mocks Bowns for the injury they caused him at the start (and will result in him missing the first week of GB training). This rivalry will be come back like a Game of Thrones season finale next year.