Back to back defeats over the weekend put a huge dent in the Edinburgh Capitals’ play-off hopes, as they were shut-out for the first time on home ice this season in a 3-0 defeat to the Sheffield Steelers.
It was always going to be a tough proposition for an Edinburgh side winless in four previous meetings with the Steelers this season, though they did grab a point on home ice the last time Sheffield visited Murrayfield in league action.
And, after a 7-5 loss in Braehead on Saturday night, the Capitals largely rose to the challenge of playing a sounder defensive game albeit to no avail as they drew a blank on a night when they lost further ground on the top eight. An inspired performance from Travis Fullerton, who made 39 saves, was all in vain.
The opening frame was distinctly one sided, at least in the shot column, as Edinburgh withstood wave after wave of Steelers attacks. Things did not begin too shabbily for the hosts though as Mason Wilgosh forced Ervins Mustukovs into work with the glove just twelve seconds into the contest.
This was, without doubt, the Fullerton show though. He made smart saves from Mathieu Roy and then bailed out Garrett Milan who had failed to clear the zone, to tip away Andreas Valdix’s drive.
Edinburgh’s best move to this point nearly brought reward as Matt Tipoff and Michal Dobron combined to tee up Karel Hromas, but the big pad of Mustukovs thwarted the Czech forward.
A first power play chance of the night, called against Valdix, would commence a familiar theme as the Capitals stuttered on the man advantage. Things could have been worse though as Steelers captain Jonathan Phillips almost opportunistically rammed home a short-handed opener with Fullerton standing tall.
By this stage the Edinburgh goal was leading a charmed life. Through a barrage of rubber, Fullerton was keeping the Capitals in the contest for a side now under constant siege.
Guillaume Desbiens forced a save after fanning on an initial back door try before Robert Dowd was denied after Ian Schultz surrendered the puck in his own zone. Sheffield kept coming. John Armstrong nearly finished off a smart rush but Fullerton again kept it out, before former Capital Ben O’Connor saw his slap shot saved with the glove.
Then came the save of the period. Armstrong was denied and then Fullerton showed great awareness to locate the puck out in front, sprawling forward to make the stop just as it looked destined to be slammed home. This was a goaltending masterclass.
But after Schultz and Tyler Plews saw efforts come and go, it was perhaps inevitable that Sheffield’s considerable pressure would pay off before the period was out and so it did.
It was well worked in truth as Levi Nelson picked out Dowd in front who took aim and fired home with 3:07 left in the opening period. It broke Fullerton’s resistance as Edinburgh were unable to enter the first intermission all square.
1-0 could have become two before the end of the period as Sheffield had the puck in the net. The officials blew the play dead and just as well for the hosts with Fullerton losing his stick. Had that counted that might have been that.
Cue a late rally then from the Capitals who would go close through Schultz and Hromas, but the Steelers would carry a narrow lead into the middle period with the visitors probably disappointed not to have registered more on the scoresheet. Edinburgh had Fullerton to thank for keeping the score down.
Yet things looked ominous early in the second period. A cheap giveaway by Jaroslav Hertl presented two openings for Roy but again Fullerton was alive to save both times with the pad as Sheffield went post-to-post.
Two more chances for Desbiens and Anders Franzon had re-established Sheffield’s dominance in the shot column before arguably the save of the game denied Colton Fretter a second.
A stray cross-ice pass was superbly cut out giving Fretter a one-on-one opportunity but Fullerton again bailed out his teammates with a stunning save to keep Edinburgh in the contest.
It seemed only a matter of time before goal number two would arrive as Valdix and Mike Ratchuk again kept Fullerton on his toes, but the Capitals would see their clearest sight of goal come to nothing shortly afterwards.
A quick rush had Wilgosh away but critically his effort was snared by the excellent Mustukovs to preserve Sheffield’s narrow advantage. In hindsight, on a night of few clear openings for Edinburgh, that was a huge save.
Edinburgh though were growing in confidence with a trademark Dobron slap shot causing all sorts of problems out in front. Mustukovs made the initial save, possibly off a redirect, but the rebound just wouldn’t fall for the hosts and the chance went with it.
A second power play chance for the Capitals passed with Wilgosh, who fired just the wrong side of the post, going close. Moments later Jared Staal appeared to strike the post with an effort which was about as close as Edinburgh came to registering on the scoreboard.
And a sickening collision between Christoffer Bjorklund and Schultz that forced a stoppage did little to disrupt the visitors’ momentum in this one.
They nearly grabbed a fortuitous second on their first power play opportunity after a crazy bounce off the back boards nearly left Fullerton stranded. But for another strange bounce an arriving Sheffield attacker would have had an empty net to aim at. It was quite the let-off.
Edinburgh killed that off successfully, but they would be forced to do it all again before the period was out. Jacob Johnston was assessed a 2+2 double minor for high sticking giving Sheffield a long four minute power play to begin period three.
Miraculously though, the Capitals penalty killing unit emerged unscathed with O’Connor’s slap shot inches away from connecting with Roy. It was as close as the Steelers came to finding the net.
Though goal number two was just around the corner as the visitors took a firm grip on the destiny of this one. It was a memorable moment for Dowd who slotted home his 200th goal in all Elite League competitions with his second of the night. Again it had Nelson at the heart of it as he instigated a rush that ended with Dowd spinning away and firing home a back hander.
It was a moment of individual quality, the kind needed to beat an inspired Fullerton, as the Steelers opened up a 2-0 lead with 14:06 to go in the game. Edinburgh’s spirited defensive showing was undone with a goal that felt like the clincher.
But this Edinburgh side do not throw the towel in easily and, to their credit, they kept going carving out a few chances in a period offensively where they shook into life.
Hertl would fire wide before Taylor MacDougall would force Mustukovs into a save as Edinburgh searched for that lifeline that may have acted as the catalyst for a late rally.
They were to be left frustrated again though with 13:10 left as a tremendous move failed to get the reward it deserved. A break by the hardworking Milan gave Schultz an opening only for him to fire against the bar with Mustukovs beaten.
It was a superb solo effort as he twisted and turned, weaving his way through with some neat stick-work only to be denied by the crossbar. An inch or two lower and the Capitals would have been on the board. Small margins decide games and this rather summed up Edinburgh’s night offensively.
A third power play chance looked to be the ideal opportunity to wrestle the initiative away from the Steelers, though the home side would again come up short. Patient build-up by Pavel Vorobyev gave Michael D’Orazio an opening and he fired a slap shot on net only to be denied by Mustukovs.
Captain Johnston would be next to try his luck, teed up by Staal, before Yevgeni Fyodorov fired over following a scramble. This just was not Edinburgh’s night as they tried to muster something late in the day.
Sheffield nearly grabbed a third goal in fortunate fashion. Geoff Walker’s shot struck the skate of Dobron leaving Fullerton wrong footed, landing just the right side of the post. It would have been a cruel way to concede.
Fullerton though was at his usual best to deny both Desbiens on a back door try and on a shot out in front – the Canadian netminder fully deserving of his man of the match award.
Edinburgh’s last real chance of note fell to Staal who collected Milan’s feed and drilled an effort wide across goal. It would have set up a grandstand finish had it nestled in the corner but within moments Sheffield put the gloss on a deserved road win.
The Dowd-Nelson-Valdix line came up big again for the visitors as this time Dowd turned provider for Nelson to squeeze home goal number three. He showed good hands in truth to tuck away with 5:13 remaining in the contest. Sheffield were made to work hard for their win but their quality shone through in the end, despite Fullerton’s heroics.
Things could have been even better for the visitors who failed to capitalise on a D’Orazio slip. A quick rush should have resulted in a fourth as Valdix could only steer wide following Nelson’s swift square pass.
The visitors survived successfully on a fourth Capitals power play to notch up a 3-0 win, handing Mustukovs his first shut-out of the season as they ended the weekend with some points following a defeat against Nottingham on Saturday.
For Edinburgh a largely sound defensive display and a superb performance by Fullerton were of scant consolation for a side who are quickly running out of games in their quest to make the play-offs.
Shut out for the first time on home ice and only the third time this season added insult to injury for a side who lived with Sheffield for long spells in this one, only to come up short.
A pointless weekend only increases the pressure for points and Dundee’s victory leaves them further behind the pack in the race for the top eight. This next week could prove decisive with a game against the Stars on Wednesday, and a trip to Coventry, who remain in 8th place, to follow next week.
Mason Wilgosh was full of praise for Travis Fullerton and was keen to emphasise the good parts of the Capitals’ performance, ultimately ruing a lack of puck luck as his side drew a blank against the Steelers.
“It was a tough weekend for us. They were not the results we wanted, Saturday [in Braehead] was not a good game for us and we didn’t think we played well. It was a close game, 7-5, but we can’t be letting in that many goals. It’s hard to win a game scoring five goals and not winning. Tonight we didn’t get the puck luck and the pucks didn’t go in for us but give them credit, we played two good teams this weekend. We’ve got to stick with it and just keep going and pushing forward. We’ve got Dundee on Wednesday and we’ve got to be ready for that.
“Fully [Travis Fullerton] was great again tonight. He’s always going to be there every night, he’s going to make big saves and he did. But this team [Sheffield] are good. They’re really good defensively, they’ve always got guys back and they don’t give you much. For us we were trying to keep the puck out of our net and maybe we were sitting back a little bit tonight, but we didn’t get the bounces and the chances we did have. At the end of the day we’ve got to move on, take the positives and adjust things we did wrong and get ready for Dundee on Wednesday.
“It was frustrating. Some days you don’t get the bounces, sometimes it hits the bar and it goes in and sometimes it hits the bar and goes out like with Ian [Schultz] there. It could have been a turning point in the game and we can only dwell on the loss. It is what it is and we’ve got to look past it now and start heading in the right direction for the rest of the season.”