Sheffield Steelers are a work in progress after split weekend

Sam Jones in a punch up at the Arena (Photo: Submitted)
Sam Jones in a punch up at the Arena (Photo: Submitted)

That was the size of the Arena crowd on Saturday night for the first challenge match of pre-season, against Nottingham Panthers.

It was 4,000 more seats filled than the corresponding ‘friendly’ there last year.

And it hints at a comprehensive support – and all its associated pressure – to deliver the first EIHL league title since 2016.

Colton Saucerman v Josh Tetlow pic courtesy of Nottingham Panthers (Photo: Submitted)
Colton Saucerman v Josh Tetlow pic courtesy of Nottingham Panthers (Photo: Submitted)

Now all they need is a consistent team.

Sheffield won the home leg 4-1 and then went behind three times in Sunday’s return leg, dipping 3-4.

For a side thrown together a week ago, it was a valuable weekend’s experience, providing food for thought.

Coach Aaron Fox believes they were outworked in only one of six periods over the matches.

He spoke of “growing pains” in the new side, which is understandable given the fact it was their first game together after just one week of training.

He and the fans will be hoping Steelers should be harder to break down this year and possess more firepower at the opposite end.

Whether that means they will overcome grand slammers Belfast Giants remains to be seen.

Fox, who lost Marco Vallerand to injury on Saturday, reflected that it had been “a lot of work in the summer time to put the puzzle pieces together, and find guys to bring trophies to Sheffield.”

In the first game his players “had that buy-in which is huge and I love to see the boys stick up for each other (a reference to third-period fights.)

He said they were a younger, grittier, and bigger group and no team would push them around.

Sunday brought the caveat that hockey as a 60-minute game is still something they need to perfect.

Their errors would be identified and addressed this week, said the coach.

Saturday night’s first impressions were that Steelers were defensively stronger and more varied offensively.

Patrick Watling, one of Sheffield’s dozen new faces, and his opposite number 14, Jordan Kelsall, both missed chances to keep the Orange Army and visiting support on the edge of their seats.

The focus was not just on the new players.

Frank Tansey’s hits and Mitchell Balmas’ opening goal were welcome of course.

But so was Robert Dowd’s inventiveness and tenacity.

And there was a bite in Daniel Ciampini’s play, he is going to be a major influence this season.

Ice hockey is an unpredictable sport though and despite Steeler domination, Panthers levelled against the run of play (Otto Nieminen.)

Fox’s men continued to press and Mark Simpson opened his account for 2-1.

Gols from Scott Allen, an empty-netter from Brandon Whistle and some tasty scraps illuminated the final moments.

Sunday saw Vallerand replaced by debutant import Kameron Kielly and Tony Morrone made his goaltending debut.

Nottingham were desperate not to concede as much puck possession and as many chances as the previous night and took the lead (Mathieu Lemay.)

They couldn’t hold on to it with Sam Jones right flank shot and Ciampini’s backhand bringing up a 2-1 away lead. Didrik Henbrand’s goal the teams level again.

Morrone conceded a third at the half way point (Nieminen) so Sheffield had to again come from behind in the final 20 minutes, and they did that when Brett Neumann went down on one knee in the slot.

But Nieminen’s second of the night ensured a split weekend for the rivals.

It’s a work in progress.