Giants' title bid in ruins as they fall to the Steelers
The Belfast Giants' Elite League title bid is all but over.
Already in need of a favour if they were to have any chance of overhauling the Cardiff Devils on the final weekend of the season, the very team the Giants were hoping would help open the door for them have instead slammed it shut in their face.
The Sheffield Steelers left the SSE Arena as 5-2 winners last night and even if they repeat last Sunday's victory over the Devils when they meet again tonight, the odds, which were already heavily stacked against the Giants, are now even longer.
Derrick Walser's men already knew that they would likely need to take maximum points from their last four games if they were to pull off an unlikely title triumph.
Now, after losing to the Steelers, three wins are a must, but even that may not be enough.
If Cardiff win either of their games this weekend, first against Sheffield and then at home to the Fife Flyers, they will be champions and the double-header between them and the Giants next weekend will be academic.
Despite dominating the game in terms of shots, the Giants' failure to score when on top ultimately cost them.
The Steelers took the initiative with two goals early in the second period and the Giants didn't get a foothold in the game until the first minute of the third period. Two quick-fire goals in the five minutes that followed put the Steelers 4-1 up and even when the Giants pulled another back, an empty-net goal in the final couple of minutes sealed the victory.
Somehow, despite out-shooting the Steelers 16-8 in the first period, it ended scoreless.
An early minute-long five-on-three powerplay came and went without the Giants being able to find an equaliser, although Jim Vandermeer did hit a post.
The second period was even more one-sided in terms of pressure, the Giants having a massive 20 shots on Ervins Mustukovs' goal without success.
A tripping call on Markus Nilsson gave the Giants a powerplay early in the second period, but it was the Steelers who scored to open the scoring at 14:32, when Mathieu Roy stole the puck and skated through unassisted to beat Stephen Murphy.
It got worse for the Giants six minutes later when they fell 2-0 behind.
Mike Ratchuk and Andreas Valdix linked and Nilsson provided the finish at 20:16.
Another five-on-three opportunity was passed up, but the Giants finally broke the Steelers' goaltender's resistance just over a minute into the third period when Chris Higgins and Blair Riley set up Jerome Leduc at 41:02.
Two goals in 33 seconds then effectively won the game for the Steelers. Geoff Walker scored their third at 45:51 and before the Giants could regroup they were 4-1 behind when Roy scored his second of the night at 46:24.
The Giants did threaten a comeback when they reacted immediately and James Desmarais scored at 46:45.
They even pulled Murphy with a couple of minutes to go, but the Steelers secured the win when Guillaume Desbiens put the puck into the empty net at 58:16.
The Giants must now beat Coventry Blaze tonight and hope that Sheffield win at home against Cardiff if they are to delay the Devils lifting the title.