All to play for in Sunday's second leg

Friday, 28th March 2008

Sheffield Steelers 5 - 4 Manchester Phoenix

This bmibaby Elite League Playoff tie is poised on a knife-edge after the hometown Steelers edged a nine-goal, see-saw encounter on Friday night. In a game that simmered with tension throughout, the lead changed no fewer than five times, with neither side able to establish a two-goal lead and leaving Sunday nights second leg in Altrincham perfectly poised.

Sheffield got off to the perfect start with Joe Talbot firing them in front from close range with just 68 seconds having elapsed. Phoenix stayed calm and edged their way back into the game, but having to kill off three penalties before the simmering tension came to the surface in the 18th minute. Talbot and Joe Tallari clashed and in the ensuing scramble that followed, tempers were raised and when the dust settled, Sheffields' Rod Sarich was ejected from the game having been adjudged to be the Third Man In to the altercation.

Trailing by the only goal, Phoenix survived an early scare in the second period before equalising with a picture perfect play. Tony Hand won a clean face-off in the offensive zone to lay the puck perfectly into the path of captain Scott Basiuk, and his one-time slapshot gave Lehman in the home goal no chance. Six minutes later and the Phoenix nosed in front as Brett Clouthier fed Sean Starke and when his mistimed shot saw the puck squirt off his stick nowhere in the direction of the goal, it fell perfectly for Simon Mangos to coolly slot home. Phoenix were pegged back as once again, the referee called a penalty and with Starke in the sin-bin, the Steelers worked the puck down low for Tessier to lift it high into the top corner just before the half-hour mark. More trouble ensued as first Brian Passmore (Slashing) and then Omar Ennaffati (Hooking) were penalised and on the two-man advantage, the Steelers regained the lead as once more, thet worked close to the net for Phillips to score. Phoenix showed great resolve and still on the penalty kill, struck a superb shorthanded equaliser. Goalie Scott Fankhouser found Basiuk and his long outlet pass found Luke Stauffacher in space in the neutral zone and the diminutive American raced away to calmly deke around Lehman to score in the 35th minute. The see-saw action then saw Phoenix regain the lead, with the sixth goal of the period, Brett Clouthiers shot cannoning off the pads of Lehman in the home goal to fall beautifully into the path of Omar Ennaffati who gleefully buried it at 37.09.

Phoenix started brightly in the final period with Lehman making good saves to deny Passmore and Tallari, before Sheffield again got to wrok around the Phoenix goal and as the visitors defence failed to clear a loose puck, Sale-born Jason Hewitt again tied the score. Sheffield then killed back-to-back penalties against Tessier before scoring the eventual game-winning goal in the 52nd minute. Once again, they chose to work the puck deep into the Phoenix defensive zone and Doug Sheppard snuck in at the back post to tuck home the goal. Phoenix were again penalised with Jeff MacMillan and Tony Hand in the sin-bin with Sheffield enjoying over a minute of a second two-man powerplay. They worked hard and successfully got both players back into the action, but were unable to force a further equaliser in the short time remaining.

Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand commented, "Our guys battled superbly tonight. Before the game if I'd been offered a one goal deficit to take back to Altrincham on Sunday, I'd probably have taken it. I cannot fault the effort at all tonight, we worked our socks off and had we not been shorthanded quite so much, who knows how it might have gone. Everyone contributed tonight and we'll look forward now to Sunday."

A Phoenix spokesperson added, "We've been the least penalised team in the league all season, and I'm not quite sure how we managed to concede ten powerplay opportunities tonight. With just one goal between the teams, it's all set up for a barn-burner of a second leg on Sunday. Tickets have sold very, very quickly and given the closeness of this first leg, we're expecting a sell-out and the atmosphere on Sunday will be white hot from the first face-off. This tie is far from over and on Sunday, we'll have our crowd behind us. Sheffield, as expected, are bringing a big contingent of their supporters. But Sunday is in our building, on our ice in front of our massed ranks of supporters. We want this tie, we want to go to Nottingham for the Finals Weekend, and it's going to be an unbelievable night."