Heartbreak for Flyers as huge play-off effort falls just short

There was agony for Nico Suoraniemi and Fife Flyers team mates on Sunday after a 6-5 aggregate loss to Sheffield despite a spirited fighback. Pic: Fife Flyers
There was agony for Nico Suoraniemi and Fife Flyers team mates on Sunday after a 6-5 aggregate loss to Sheffield despite a spirited fighback. Pic: Fife Flyers
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Fife Flyers 2 Sheffield Steelers 3 - EIHL play-off quarter-final 1st leg

Fife Flyers will spend the summer questioning how on earth they managed to lose this play-off quarter-final first leg against Sheffield Steelers.

The 3-2 defeat on home ice would ultimately cost them their place in finals weekend, but it was a harsh outcome from, arguably, the team’s best performance of the year. They threw everything they had at the EIHL champions but they refused to buckle.

Flyers restricted the visitors to just 20 shots on Kevin Regan while opposite number Josh Unice had to be at the very top of his game to keep Steelers in the game.

Such was Flyers dominance at times that you questioned whether the real Sheffield team had turned up, but in reality, Flyers have always been capable of such high quality, high tempo hockey - they just chose not to produce it often enough this season.

Flyers set the tone with a great first shift that had Steelers instantly on their heels. It was a pattern that continued throughout a relentless, but goalless opening 20 minutes. It had been an encouraging start for Flyers, but they needed a goal for lift off, especially while Sheffield seemed to be playing nowhere near title-winning best.

After what seemed like an eternity of frustration the opening goal finally arrived on 27.03 as Jordan Fulton pirouetted on the puck before sending a dream pass to the back post where Jamie Milam fired home to light the ignition switch.

Sheffield’s response, however, was instant as they immediately set up a rare attack, and when a series of panicked clearances failed to clear the zone Michael Forney fired in the equaliser.

Losing a hard-earned lead so quickly certainly doused Flyers enthusiasm, and Sheffield enjoyed their best spell of the match in the lead up the 40-minute mark, which they made count as Colton Fretter zipped a wrist-shot past Regan for a 2-1 lead.

Todd Dutiaume got his team fired up again for period three while the fans also did their bit, giving the team a huge ovation as they made their way back onto the ice for the final time this season.

Flyers rediscovered their energy and Unice denied them with a series of fantastic saves, a bolt of lightning from the stuck of Ned Lukacevic finally drew the hosts level with 5.40 left, smashing a one-time effort straight through the Steelers’ netminder.

Flyers pushed for a winner but with the two-legged tie only approaching the halfway stage there was no need to leave themselves exposed at the back.

However, a careless giveaway in the final minute was punished with clinical efficiency by the Steelers as Robert Dowd pounced from close range put Steelers 3-2 ahead with just 34 seconds left.

It was a cruel end to Flyers final home match, but in many ways it summed up a season of losing cheap goals at bad times.

On this occasion, however, the performance deserved better.

Sheffield Steelers 3 (6) Fife Flyers 3 (5) - EIHL play-off quarter-final 2nd leg

Fife Flyers produced a stunning comeback in Sheffield on Sunday only to end up with glorious failure.

Flyers hopes of making the play-off finals looked dead and buried midway through this quarter-final second leg when Steelers made it 3-0 on the night, for a 6-2 lead on aggregate.

However, the visiting Fifers stunned a packed Motorpoint Arena by fighting back to level the match at 3-3, only to suffer the agony of a one-goal aggregate defeat to the EIHL champions.

Flyers can hold their heads high - they more than matched a superb Sheffield side over two legs when few gave them a chance - but one must ask where this team had been hiding all season.

Flyers got off to the worst possible start, losing a goal after just 1 minute 18 seconds to quickly fall two behind on aggregate.

Mathieu Roy was afforded space in the slot, and he showed the firepower that made him this season’s EIHL top scorer with a stinging wrist-shot which flew past netminder Kevin Regan before he could raise his glove.

Steelers then moved into a three-goal aggregate lead on 14.32 with Robert Dowd’s incisive one-time finish straight off a face-off win while Flyers just stood and watched.

Dowd struck again on the 37 minute mark after Flyers gave the puck away in their own zone, and with four goals now between the sides, it seemed it was lights out for the Kirkcaldy side.

However, Stephen Gunn’s clever finish, tipping a Tom Muir slapshot past Peter Unice on 36.37 for his sixth of the season, led to a ferocious Flyers fightback that took them to the brink of glory.

Flyers had the league champions on the ropes in the third period, and on 48.40 Jordan Fulton reduced the deficit to three, diverting Chris Auger’s pass beyond Unice for 3-2 on the night.

Things really escalated on 54.55 when Danny Stewart tried his luck from the blue line and the puck flew past Unice for 3-3, and 6-5 on aggregate. Suddenly, with five minutes left, Flyers had a lifeline - and huge momentum - while Steelers were rattled.

Despite a monumental effort - Regan was pulled with 1.16 to go - time ran away from Flyers and the final buzzer was the death knell for their season.

Flyers gave their best over two legs, but it wasn’t enough, and in the end, there was a mixture of pride and pain for fans and players alike.

After such a heartbreaking sign off, it promises to be a long summer.