Sunday, 16 April 2017

National Ice Centre, Nottingham

Sheffield Steelers 6-5 Cardiff Devils

2017 Elite Ice Hockey League Playoff Final

I was a touch unsure quite what to expect here, I have to say: a (relatively) major sporting event played out in front of an attendance of what would be mostly neutrals.  To explain: the Elite Ice Hockey Finals Weekend features four clubs who have qualified via play-offs, but tickets for the event go on sale not only to supporters of all ten league sides, but months before the participants are even known.

Each club is allocated an area of the seating with, I am assuming based upon previous attendances, fans of Nottingham Panthers being given (mixed feline metaphor alert) the lions' share.  However this season, the Panthers (generally regular qualifiers) had failed to make the Finals Weekend, so I knew there would be a sizable wodge of folks attending who would be at best ambivalent about being there at all.

Contrast this with the plight of the Dundee Stars' fans.  Their club had rather surprisingly reached their first ever Finals Weekend, but by this point all tickets would have gone.   So the Stars' finest hour would be played out to just a smattering of their fans.  Far better, I would have thought, to wait until the four finalist were known before putting tickets on sale – but I suppose that would not leave attendees much time to make travel and accommodation arrangements.  And given the National Ice Arena was full this afternoon, who am I to criticise the way things are done?

The aforementioned Dundee Stars and Belfast Giants (the two losing semi-finalists from the previous day) had played out pretty much an exhibition 3rd/4th playoff match earlier in the day, the score ending up around 20-15 or some such.  I had not bothered attending this one, and did not regret it.  If I wished to see a zillion scores in a single event I could go and watch some basketball.

I pitched up mid-afternoon, initially ready to offer my support, such as it is, to the Cardiff Devils in some sort of Celtic Connection solidarity.  

Although the knowledge that the Devils were very much the pre-match favorites, had my fealty wobbling.  And who could help but be swept along by the tide of enthusiasm shown by the the sea of orange-clad Sheffield Steelers fans?  So pretty much as soon as Cardiff opened the scoring, I became an honorary Steeler.  Seemingly just myself and the two teenage girls in the row in from of me, of the Fife contingent in our block, rooting for the the English side.

The National Ice Centre, Nottingham.

The National Ice Centre, Nottingham.

The National Ice Centre, Nottingham.

The National Ice Centre, Nottingham.

2017 Elite Ice Hockey League Playoff Final

Cardiff Devils in white v Sheffield Steelers (orange)

2017 Elite Ice Hockey League Playoff Final
Devils opened proceedings at a fair old lick, Guillermo DOUCET scoring after just two minutes.  And although The Steelers leveled with what looked to me their first attack of the match a couple of minutes later, by the end of the first period Cardiff were 3-1 up.  I thought the Devils had looked well on top throughout, so was a touch surprised to note the shot count was only 11-10 in their favour.  Although I am aware ice hockey statisticians, unlike football ones say, do not distinguish between shots on-target and shots off.  So, each attempt, whether it brought a goal, a fine stop from the goal-tender, or whether it was harmlessly slapped ten foot wide, counted as “a shot”.

Sheffield's John Armstrong was mercilessly booed each time he touched the puck, I soon noted.  I knew he had served a penalty early in the match for clattering into the Devils' goal-minder, but could not for the life of me work out what he had done to be in receipt of such abuse.  Perhaps there was history between him and the Nottingham Panthers fans who made up the majority of the boo-boys.

The second period began with Cardiff looking as if they would continue their ascendancy, and I began to think if this became 4-1, it could end up a rout.  But Geoff WALKER pulled one back for Sheffield with a decidedly odd-looking goal; he seeming just to (if not quite trickle) then certainly casually pass the puck into the net from rather far out.  Perhaps a deflection deceived Cardiff goal-tender Ben Bowns, for he really did not look too clever conceding.  I don’t think anyone in the arena was more surprised than the scorer, as the puck serenely sailed into the net.

Whatever; this one seemed to spark life into the hearts of the Steelers, for they dominated much of the rest of the period, leading 5-4 by the end of it.  One of the evening's loudest cheers came when one of the referees found himself sandwiched between two opposing players and the Plexiglas, and was left in a crumpled heap as a consequence.  It's a tough game, the Ice hockey.

I has just been thinking how comparatively few penalties had been served by either side when a whole flurry appeared to came along at once towards the end of the second period.  With the result we started the third period with five Devils lining up against four Steelers.  Not surprisingly, the score was soon tied at 5-5. 

Which set us all up for a pulsating third period, with both sides going hell for leather for the win.  Breath-taking saves, goal-mouth scrambles and pucks pinging off net surrounds abounded.  But nary a goal did we see, with both sides receiving a rousing standing ovation at the end of the twenty minutes.

And so to overtime, where (I think, if I picked things up correctly) the sides just keep playing twenty-minute overtime periods forever until someone scores.

I felt after the lengthy between-period break, it may be difficult for the sides to pick up the same level of intensity as before, but not a bit of it.  The match had us all on the edge of our seats as the minutes just flew by.  Thus we moved into a fifth period.

I can recall the football authorities abandoning the concept of a Golden Goal, as it was deemed too cruel.  But what is sport if not ritualised cruelty?  And the explosion of both joy and despair as Levi NELSON scored the winner for Sheffield fourteen minutes into the fifth period was something I shall remember for a long time.

I did feel for the Cardiff chaps at the end, I have to say, for I really felt no player on either side deserved to leave the National Ice Centre a loser this evening.  But this was Sheffield's day, and probably just deservedly so.

The Oranje really made this occasion with their unstinting support of their side,
particularly during that rocky first period for their team.

A distraught Ben Bowns after conceding their decisive overtime goal...

... the chaps in orange have a slightly different perspective on events.

First thing the Steelers players did upon winning the match was to take off their gloves, and toss 'em onto the ice.

Steelers' Captain Jonathan Phillips (ironically Cardiff-born) lifts the trophy.

This I think is Ervins Mustukovs (and admirer)

The National Ice Centre, Nottingham.

2017 Elite Ice Hockey League Playoff Final


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