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Challenge Cup Final Preview

It’s gameday - the Challenge cup Final is finally here. Sheffield Steelers take on Guilford Flames at the Utilita Arena this evening in their quest to claim their first piece of silverware of the season. It will be the sixth time this season the two teams have gone head to head, but this time, a trophy is on the line.


Having won every Challenge Cup game of the campaign and currently sitting top of the Elite League table - 11 points clear of second-placed Cardiff Devils - there is certainly an essence of confidence about this Sheffield Steelers team. Their season to date has been nothing short of incredible, and tonight is the start of their attempt at securing a historic treble.


Daniel Ciampini spoke to Chris Dawkes from ITV Calendar: “It could have been easy for this group to pack in their year and you know head home after everything that’s happened: obviously a tough summer with Alex [Graham] and then the incident here at the arena, and I think tonight could be the first of many. To begin to cap off a rollercoaster of a year but something that could be remarkable.”


Photo credits: Emily Laycock


The last time the Steelers won a trophy was when they lifted the Challenge Cup in Cardiff in 2020 - little did they know, this would be the only trophy on offer that season with the league suddenly cancelled.


The Flames, on the other hand, will be looking to win their first piece of silverware in the Elite League tonight. Guilford were victorious over the Steelers when they travelled to the Utilita Arena in December after a penalty shootout, but the other four meetings between the two sides this season have seen Sheffield claim the points:

  • September 24th - Guilford Flames 1:3 Sheffield Steelers

  • November 26th - Guilford Flames 2:6 Sheffield Steelers

  • December 9th - Sheffield Steelers 2:3 SO Guilford Flames

  • February 14th - Sheffield Steelers 3:0 Guilford Flames

  • February 18th - Guilford Flames 2:4 Sheffield Steelers


Following the final, the sides will meet again once more this season when the Flames return to Sheffield on March 24th.


The league’s leading point scorer this season, Mitchell Balmas, previewed the game with Viaplay Sports UK saying: “It’s always nice playing in our rink, wake up in our own bed and it’s a sold out crowd tonight, 9,300/400 fans, so it’s not going to be hard getting up for that one.


“They [Guilford Flames] are obviously a very good team from their defence to their forwards and the back end they’ve got a great goalie, so we try to treat it like another game. I know it’s obviously a cup game, but it’s 60 minutes of a hockey game and we just try to play our own game and see what happens.


“Being able to play in front of these fans and in our home rink, it’s a treat for us for sure - let’s say a little advantage for sure."


Balmas has played 55 games this season, scoring 25 goals and 46 assists. Commenting on his success he said: “I think it starts from the dressing room. We have a lot of great hockey players in there and you know every night I’m playing with some very good hockey players, so in that sense it’s been easy.


“Just thanks to the coaching staff who put their trust in me and kind of go from there.”


 

The journey to the final

Sheffield Steelers

The Steelers began their Challenge Cup 23/24 journey in Nottingham in September where they recorded six goals and a shutout. #12 Daniel Ciampini opened the scoring with #75 Robert Dowd doubling the advantage with less than five minutes played. #24 Mark Simpson was the next name on the scoresheet before #29 Scott Allen added a powerplay goal to the tally. Goals in quick succession from #92 Mitchell Balmas and #88 Marc-Olivier Vallerand rounded off the second period with Aaron Fox‘s side claiming the first win of the campaign.


A double header with the Storm then followed, and Sheffield were victorious on both occasions: firstly, at home, with a 6-1 win followed by a 6-3 victory on the road.


Continuing their hot streak, it was a 4-1 win for the Steelers at the Motorpoint Arena in October with goals from #55 Kameron Kielly, #12 Daniel Ciampini, #88 Marc-Olivier Vallerand and #27 Cole Shudra.


Following the passing of #47 Adam Johnson, the Nottingham Panthers made the decision to withdraw from the 23/24 Challenge Cup with their focus turned to supporting all involved with the club through what was an incredibly tough time, and maintaining as high of a position in the Elite League standings as possible.



Steelers Head Coach and Captain - photo credits: @officialEIHL Twitter

This meant the Steelers faced Manchester Storm twice more and they victorious in both games with four goals scored in each. The teams then met in the quarter-finals.


It was a 5-1 win for Sheffield when they travelled to the Storm Shelter with #75 Robert Dowd cancelling out #29 Michael Korol’s early goal, and #29 Scott Allen, #88 Marc-Olivier Vallerand, #14 Patrick Watling and #74 Brandon Whistle all following with goals. This was followed by a 5-1 win at the Utilita Arena too that booked their place in the semi-finals.


The first leg of the semi-final was played away in Coventry with the Steelers scoring six (#24 Mark Simpson, #75 Robert Dowd, #12 Daniel Ciampini, #29 Scott Allen (x2), #14 Patrick Watling), and #1 Matt Greenfield recording another shutout


The reverse fixture in Sheffield saw the Blaze defeated by four goals to one with the Steelers booking their place in the Challenge Cup 23/24 final.


Speaking to Chris Dawkes from ITV Calendar, head coach Aaron Fox said: “We’ve played our best games this year in the biggest games, and I’m very comfortable that we’ll be ready to play and hopefully be able to get that first one and then we’ll focus on the rest from there.”


 

Guilford Flames

Despite starting out with a 4-2 loss to the Devils away in Cardiff, the Flames bounced back when hosting Coventry Blaze late in September courtesy of goals from #8 Ryan Tait, #72 Peter Crinella and #88 Lewis Hook.


Guilford then suffered defeats to the Devils again, this time three goals to six, and then to the Blaze at the Coventry Skydome in which they only managed to score one whilst the hosts converted six chances. But their bounce back ability was tested once again when the Blaze travelled to the Guilford Spectrum and the Flames won 5-2.


The final three games before the quarter-finals saw the Flames lose 5-3 to the Devils at the Vindico Arena in late October before recording a 2-1 overtime victory over Coventry Blaze in November, and a 7-5 victory over the Devils to round it off.


The Flames travelled to Fife for the first leg of the semi-final and two goals from #72 Peter Crinella and one from #25 Patrick Bajkov secured the win. When hosting the Flyers, Guilford were victorious again, but this time by a closer margin of only one goal, booking their place in the semi-finals.


Guilford Flames Head Coach and Captain - photo credits: @officialEIHL Twitter

It was a goalless semi-final between the Flames and the Clan in Glasgow in January, but a nine-goal thriller in Guilford in February with the hosts coming out on top, 6-3.


Previewing the game with Viaplay Sports UK, the league’s leading British point scorer, Lewis Hook, said: “We’re feeling good. We’re excited.


“We’ve had talks about it, like you know the history we would create for the club… We’ve got a chance here to win the first trophy, so to go down in history with the club and the organisation - I think the fanbase want it just as much."


When he asked about facing the Steelers, the 27-year-old commented: “I mean you kinda see with how they’re doing in the league, they’re an awesome team. They’re fast, they’re skilled, they’re putting the pucks in the net, they’re scoring a lot of goals, so we just have to be ready from the puck drop and compete with their speed. We’re also a fast team so it should be a good game.”


Face-off is at 7:30pm at the Utilita Arena, Sheffield. Who will claim the first piece of silverware of the season?

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