Panthers home kit 2011-12 [illustration Adam Poole]
With the regular season over attention turned to the end of season play-offs. The format is based on final standings in the Elite League, the bottom two clubs (Fife Flyers and Edinburgh Capitals) were eliminated, leaving the top eight teams to slug it out. Based on their final league position, each team is given a seeding for the quarter-finals, played over two legs. All this meant that this year’s match-ups were as follows (with seeding in brackets):
Belfast Giants (1) v Dundee Stars (8)
Cardiff Devils (4) v Coventry Blaze (5)
Nottingham Panthers (3) v Braehead Clan (6)
Sheffield Steelers (2) v Hull Stingrays (7)
The winners of these ties progress to the play-off finals, held annually at the NIC in Nottingham, and this year contested over Easter weekend: semi-final ties are played on the Saturday with the winners progressing to the Grand Final on Sunday.
Defending champions Panthers were looking to progress to their fourth play-off finals weekend in a row, but Braehead Clan would be tough opponents, especially when you consider that the Clan had beaten Panthers twice at Braehead Arena in the regular season. Due to ice time availability, the first leg was played on Tuesday 27 March in Braehead. It was a tense game, with defences on top in the first two periods. While both teams had their moments, there was nothing that could be described as clear cut; many chances were from out wide as the defences limited the opportunities in front of their own net.
However, the third period saw a shift in momentum as the home side stamped their authority on the game. Just 20 seconds of the final session had gone when Jade Galbraith got the chance he needed to put the Clan 1-0 up. This gave Braehead confidence to attack the Panthers, while the visitors sat back seeking damage limitation in advance of the second leg back on home ice on Saturday. A second Clan goal seemed inevitable and it duly arrived in the 55th minute as Lee Mitchell made it 2-0. Worse was to follow just two minutes later as Mike Wirll made it 3-0, giving the Scotsmen a commanding lead going into the second leg at the NIC. This was undoubtedly a disappointing result for the Panthers – especially since it was the first time they had failed to score in any game this season. Following the shutout, a much improved performance was needed if they were to have any chance of making the final four.
The mountain Panthers needed to climb if they were to make the finals weekend was victory by four clear goals: a monumental task, yet what followed would turn out to be one of the most memorable games of hockey ever played at the NIC. The crowd was loud and vociferous from the start, visibly lifting the Panthers. After dominating the opening exchanges Panthers took the lead in the eighth minute through Jordan Fox. The crowd got louder still, and on 13.10 the lead was doubled as David Beauregard netted to send the NIC crowd into raptures. Clan were rocking, and now held only a slim one-goal advantage, but managed to hold on until the first period break. The shot tally told the story of Panthers dominance: 15-2 in the home side’s favour.
Five minutes into the second period and Panthers levelled the tie overall as Fox grabbed his second goal of the night to make it 3-0. Although Braehead started to come back into the game and gain some possession, Panthers still had the upper hand yet couldn’t find the go-ahead goal and it remained 3-0 at the second break. Into the third period and Panthers nosed ahead in the tie for the first time as Sami Ryhanen hit the net to raise the roof. However, just two minutes later Braehead levelled the aggregate score, as Jim Jorgenson’s shot was tipped past Panthers netminder Craig Kowalski by Jade Galbraith.
Despite chances for both sides there was to be no further scoring, so the game went into sudden death overtime. Just 80 seconds into the extra period Panthers won the tie as Brandon Benedict was given two chances to put the puck past Clan’s Finnish netminder, Jaakko Suomalainen. The noise inside the NIC was deafening, the crowd erupting at Panthers’ monumental comeback win and qualification for the finals weekend. It was truly a special night and a privilege to have watched the game. As they left the ice, the Clan players were given a well deserved standing ovation by the home fans. They had more than played their part in a marvellous series. For the Panthers and skipper Danny Meyers, it was on to the following weekend.
In the other games, champions Belfast Giants humiliated Dundee Stars by a massive 14-0 aggregate scoreline. They would play Cardiff Devils who overcame Coventry Blaze 7-4 on aggregate to keep up their record of qualifying for every Elite League play-off weekend. Panthers, meanwhile, would face the Hull Stingrays in the semi-final after they provided the shock of the round by dumping out Sheffield Steelers 7-4 on aggregate, including an excellent 5-2 win in Sheffield to clinch their place against Panthers.
The play-off weekend is something rare in sport. Fans of all clubs are happy to mingle together, drink and chat without a hint of trouble. It is also amusing to watch Nottingham’s hockey supporting population staring on aghast as these various fans descend on the city bedecked in their team colours. Market Square on play-off weekend really is a sight to behold.
The first semi-final was between two of the United Kingdom’s capital cities, Cardiff and Belfast, with the Giants going into the game as hot favourites. However, it was Cardiff who took an early lead before the Giants equalised on a powerplay later in the first period. Devils nudged in front again in the second period and then took a 3-1 lead in the third. As expected, Giants came back, scoring twice in the final five minutes of the game to take it into overtime. The sudden-death period still couldn’t separate the sides so the tie would be decided on penalty shots. Devils’ netminder proved to be the hero, saving all three Giants efforts, whilst Devils’ Kenton Smith scored on their first effort to put them into the following day’s final.
Hull Stingrays and the Panthers faced-off in the later game for the opportunity to play Cardiff in the final. Most expected a Panthers victory; however, the Stingrays had more than earned their place with a superb victory over second seeds Sheffield Steelers and so couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be taken lightly. In saying that, Panthers did dominate the opening period, but only had a David Clarke goal to show for their efforts, despite out-shooting the Rays 15-5. The screw started to be turned in the second period, though. Marc Levers and Sami Ryhanen made it 3-0, but Jason Silverthorn pulled one back for Hull. Just 1 minute and 20 seconds later it was 4-1, Clarke grabbing his second. Rhett Gordon then scored the goal of the game, waiting for Hull netminder Christian Boucher to go to ground before putting his shot into the roof of the net, before a deflected Matthew Myers shot made it 6-1 just 6 seconds before the end of the period, giving Panthers one foot in the final.
Hull’s Derek Campbell grabbed the first goal of the final period to make it 6-2 and give them a sliver of hope, but just 41 seconds later Clarke completed his hat-trick to put the game beyond reach. Panthers didn’t finish there, though, and continued to be ruthless in front of goal: further strikes from Beauregard, Lachowicz and Fox made it 10-2, before Hull coach Sylvain Cloutier’s consolation made a final score of 10-3. Panthers would face Cardiff Devils in the following afternoon’s final.
While the semi-finals produced 20 goals between them, the final was to be a totally different story. Both teams’ defensive systems came to the fore and each played an incredibly technical game that had the hockey purists purring. There were chances, but the defences and netminding of both sides was more than equal to anything heading towards goal. It was therefore going to take something special to break the deadlock and it duly arrived with the clock at 53.54. Panthers won a face-off, and Brandon Benedict’s shot was picked up by Jordan Fox who passed across to the unmarked David Alexandre Beauregard for him to beat Devils’ netminder Stevie Lyle with a backhand shot. It was pandemonium in the Panthers sections of the NIC, a mixture of joy and relief, while Beauregard celebrated like it was the last goal he’d ever score.
Over the final half-dozen minutes, Cardiff pressed hard but ultimately couldn’t find a way through. With less than a minute remaining, the Welshmen replaced Lyle with an extra skater to try and force an equaliser. However, all that happened was that David Clarke picked up the puck in the Panthers zone, skated to half-way and fired the puck into an empty net with 6 seconds remaining. It was 2-0 and Panthers were Play-Off champions for the second successive year. Panthers collected the trophy from Justice Minister and MP for Rushcliffe, Ken Clarke. Captain Danny Meyers let the retiring Rhett Gordon lift the trophy in his last professional game, a classy act from the Panthers skipper.
So another season has ended. Panthers finished with two trophies, just like last season. The league still eludes them, as it has done since the 1950s, but there is genuine belief that next year we can get the monkey off our back. I guess we’ll find out soon enough, with everything starting again in September.
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