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Sheffield Steelers turn dreams into expectations with dominant Challenge Cup win

Nothing is ever certain in hockey, but it would be foolish to bet against the Sheffield Steelers now.

Brien Diffley, Sheffield Steelers (Image: Dean Woolley)

UTILITA ARENA, SHEFFIELD | The Sheffield Steelers’ exemplary Challenge Cup final performance proved what most people around the Elite League have suspected all season long. Aaron Fox has built a wagon, a team so effective that winning the Grand Slam isn’t a dream. It’s expected.

Sheffield broke the deadlock within two minutes of puck drop on Wednesday [13 March], sending the capacity Utilita Arena crowd – the overwhelming majority of it dressed in orange – into raptures.

It was an offensive play the Steelers have hammered all season – gain the blueline with speed, cutback with the puck to force the opposition’s defence to rotate, and send the weak side defenceman towards the net for a backdoor tap-in.

Robert Dowd executed the first half of the play perfectly, dazzling his checker with classy edgework before threading the puck to an unmarked Brien Diffley, who left his spot on the blueline to score from down low.

“It shows how deep we are that a guy who doesn’t usually score got us started,” Fox told BBC Radio Sheffield as championship celebrations commenced.

“Diff was all over the ice tonight and finished the game with a long shift to close it out. It was good to see him rewarded, his [defensive] stick and skating [ability] is excellent.”

Paul Dixon warned his team about the dangers of falling behind early – but the Flames were powerless to resist Sheffield’s hot start.

“It’s difficult to take,” Dixon told reporters in Sheffield, “we got off to the worst possible start. We spoke about the first period, momentum, and how strong Sheffield come out in the first twenty and we still gave a really soft goal away, with the d-man walking to the back door.

“It can’t happen.”

But it did – and the Steelers have executed that kind of play often this term.

Lightning-quick on the transition and patient with the puck in the offensive zone, Fox’s men aren’t in the habit of taking low-percentage shots and they were rewarded for it en route to lifting their first piece of silverware in four years.

Sheffield Steelers, Elite League (Image: Dean Woolley)

Challenge Cup: Sheffield Steelers, Elite League (Image: Dean Woolley)

Sheffield’s powerplay marker in the final moments of the first period was another point of frustration for Dixon, who was hopeful that his side would make it to the intermission with the score tied.

Instead, Patrick Watling rifled a hard shot beyond Taz Burman to secure the Challenge Cup-winning goal and highlight another area of separation between Sheffield and the rest of the league.

The Flames were extremely passive on the penalty kill, camping around their crease in a narrow diamond formation as the Steelers manipulated the puck with ease.

Sheffield, by contrast, refused to allow Guildford an inch of space when killing penalties.

With Diffley in the box for a delay of game minor, the Flames headed to the powerplay with an opportunity to tie the game at two apiece. But they didn’t come close, with the Steelers aggressively pursuing the puck all over the ice despite being shorthanded.

Fox’s side wouldn’t even afford Guildford the comfort of a neutral zone drop-pass, when the puck carrier charges into the middle of the rink and leaves the puck behind for a teammate to attack with speed.

Aaron Fox, Sheffield Steelers (Image: Dean Woolley)

Challenge Cup Aaron Fox, Sheffield Steelers (Image: Dean Woolley)

Sheffield outclassed the Flames – who produced a valiant effort and pulled their netminder for an extra skater with two minutes remaining in the third – in every facet: physical, tactical, and mental.

Guildford outshot and outchanced the Steelers, but the bulk of those shots and chances came after the 40-minute mark, with the result assured and Matthew Greenfield unlikely to be beaten twice in the Challenge Cup final.

“The boys did an awesome job in the first two periods to give me a two-goal lead and I just wanted to fight as hard as I could to defend it,” Greenfield said of his 34-save performance.

“They did an awesome job blocking shots and taking away second chances, it was an unbelievable win for the fellas. I was just trying to fight and compete, doing whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net. Nothing else matters in that situation.”

Expectations rise in Sheffield after Steelers’ lift Challenge Cup:

Unlike in previous seasons, which have seen the Steelers shrink in high-pressure situations, Sheffield’s players and coaching staff are full of confidence and willing to be blunt about it.

“Last year left me hungry for a championship,” said defenceman Brett Neumann. “I had that empty feeling at the end of the year and that’s one [trophy] down. We’ve got our eyes set on winning three, hopefully we can get it done.”

Sheffield Steelers, lifting the 2023-24 Challenge Cup (Image: Dean Woolley)

Sheffield Steelers, lifting the 2023-24 Challenge Cup (Image: Dean Woolley)

Forward Mitchell Balmas took a similar tone.

“It’s awesome, the fans were unbelievable and they gave us the extra boost tonight,” said the Canadian. “We came here at the start of the year to win trophies and this is the first step. We’ve got two more [to try to win] but we’re going to celebrate this tonight.”

Fox was even bolder, calling a timeout while leading by a two-goal margin with ten seconds left to play. By the end of his teamtalk, his roster was bouncing in unison. Pure elation.

“It’s a pretty safe lead when you’re ahead by two with ten seconds left and the puck is at the other end of the ice,” said Greenfield of the unconventional stoppage. “Foxy was pumping us up. He’s the best, I’m so glad we were able to get it done.”

The Steelers, nine points clear at the top of the Elite League standings, have pocketed their first trophy and their second of the season is within touching distance.

Balmas leads the Elite League in points (56), while Greenfield stands above his netminding rivals in the save-percentage (.934) and goals-against average (1.78) categories.

Matthew Greenfield, Sheffield Steelers (Image: Dean Woolley)

Challenge Cup: Matthew Greenfield, Sheffield Steelers (Image: Dean Woolley)

Sheffield’s powerplay conversion (29.3 percent) and penalty kill success (87.7 percent) rates sit top of the tree.

The Steelers also lead the league in goals for per sixty (4.3), goals against per sixty (1.93), and average penalty minutes (7.89).

“It’s crazy, if you told me six months ago that we’d be here, I wouldn’t believe you,” said a visibly delighted Daniel Campiani. “I’m so proud of these guys, I say it every time we win.

“It’s been a long, hard year, and I’m just so proud of these guys for standing by each other. There isn’t a selfish guy in the room and it’s crazy to see what you can accomplish together.”

Nothing is ever certain in hockey. But, at this point in the story, it would be foolish to bet against the Steelers. Sheffield is officially on Grand Slam watch.

Will the Sheffield Steelers build on their Challenge Cup success? Join the conversation on Twitter. Steelers Challenge Cup

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