Admit it – how many of us thought the Sheffield Steelers would still be in the title hunt with just two weeks to go, even more so knowing that five wins in their final five games would secure back-to-back championships.
The fact that somehow Ryan Finnerty has dragged this team into the position they find themselves in going into tomorrow’s game against Belfast is not only remarkable but a huge achievement for a rookie coach in what was meant to be a rebuilding year.
However, the pack is stacked against the Steelers. Finnerty’s side must not only beat Belfast on both Friday and Saturday they must do it in regulation as the Giants are a point away for the top trophy. If the Steelers end the year tied on points with Belfast it will be the Giants who lift the crown on countback of won games in regulation, ironically the same rule that Sheffield beat Cardiff to the title last season.
While the Giants have taken four out of six points (Steelers three out of six) in Sheffield the Steelers were the winners of the only game played in Belfast so far this year, a penalty shoot-out victory.
You can break the two top sides down in many ways but a simple reality is that John DeCaro has to be the best player on the ice on both nights.
The Steelers power play has to click and Legue and Sarich have to find that chemistry they had before the lengthy Sarich injury. Finnerty also has to find some secondary scoring - Fulghum, King, Phillips and Hewitt have to deliver.
The reliance on Legue is a drawback for the Steelers as the Giants will try and shut him down as they will feel the Steelers offence diminishes considerable if they can keep him off the score sheet.
With the offensive punch that Belfast can deliver it is also essential that Steelers keep calm and don’t spend half the night in the penalty box as the likes of Pelle, Dowd, Denniset and Peacock can be lethal. The Steelers have to keep things tight. Give Belfast nothing and if it means boring the Oddesey Arena to sleep then bore them. Wait it out, find a way, just like championship Steelers teams of old have done but don’t get into a firefight with Belfast as they have too much scoring ability.
The Steelers have another big advantage. They have been there before; won before; delivered before. Belfast haven’t so put doubt in their mind, ask questions they haven’t been asked before. It’s still a huge mountain for Finnerty to climb but you wouldn’t bet against his team finding a way and dragging out two dirty wins, would you?
I saw Nottingham Panthers win their third back to back-to-back Challenge Cup on Wednesday – an incredible achievement. They are stacked with both talent and depth and they should have won the Championship by a mile but they can’t even make second place. Some Sheffield fans who have recently criticised the team should remember that and realise what a great job it has been from the Steelers to get to where they are this year.
They have over achieved as a team this season and Finnerty has shown he has what it takes to deliver success in seasons to come. The future’s bright ... and orange.