Panthers home [illustration: Adam Poole]
Last time we spoke, Panthers were entering February still in touching distance of Elite League leaders Belfast Giants. With two huge games coming up against them (as well as the two-legged Challenge Cup Final), they knew they would have to win to stand any chance of lifting a first league title since 1956. The question was simple: with the final regular league season game also against the Giants, in Belfast on March 24, could Panthers travel there for a potential title decider or would the Ulstermen have it all wrapped up by then?
The month started with a routine 6-2 victory over the Dundee Stars in a game that will be remembered more for the length of time it took most of the crowd to get home due to the snow than the hockey on offer! The unexpected heavy downfall of the white stuff lead to the cancellation of the following night’s game in Edinburgh which was re-scheduled for later in the month.
The next four games would make or break Panthers title challenge for this season: those back-to-back home games with the Giants, followed by Sheffield Steelers away on Valentine’s Night and then back at the NIC four days later. Win all four games and Panthers would be title favourites; more than one loss and realistically it would all be over. Curtains.
A large crowd were at the NIC for the first game on Saturday night, but they were to be left shell-shocked as Giants took an early 2-0 lead. The visitors continued to dominate, so it was somewhat against the run of play that Panthers got back into the game, thanks to a Matt Francis break-away goal before the first interval. However, Giants restored the two-goal advantage shortly after the break through Robert Dowd and the visitors continued to have the upper hand until that man Francis gave Panthers hope by making it 2-3 with his second goal of the night. There was a switch in dominance during the final period as the home side battled for an equaliser, which finally came from the stick of top-scorer David Beauregard which took the game into overtime. With the extra five minutes failing to separate the sides, the game then went to the lottery of penalty shots. With all Panthers shooters missing (non-hockey fans: it’s not as easy as football!), Craig Peacock’s opening strike of the shootout won the game and left Panthers title hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads.
Another large crowd was in attendance for part two on the Sunday, a game that Panthers simply had to win. The early signs were good as goals from Steve Lee and Robert Lachowicz gave the home side a 2-0 lead that they would hang on to until 7 minutes from the end – 7 minutes of madness that put paid to Panthers title hopes for this season! The Giants scored three unanswered goals in those 7 minutes, the winner coming just 7 seconds from the final buzzer. While the Giants celebrated, the stunned crowd left the NIC not quite believing what they had just witnessed.
After such a devastating blow, a trip to Sheffield to face the Steelers just two days later was not what was needed, coach Corey Nielson obviously having to pick his players off the floor after the weekend games against the Giants. Things started well, though, as David Clarke put the Panthers ahead with just over a minute gone, only for Steelers to equalise soon after through Colt King. Panthers’ netminder Craig Kowalski was seemingly keeping Steelers at bay on his own, but the resistance finally broke in the second period as Steelers went ahead 2-1. Just as they seemed to have lost a grip on the game, Panthers battled back, Lachowicz scoring the equaliser to go into the second interval all square, momentum that was sustained into the early exchanges of the third period, but it was the Steelers who re-took the lead as coach Ryan Finnerty blasted an unstoppable shot past Kowalski. A harsh penalty against Gui Lepine late on put paid to Panthers chances of an equaliser, but they still lifted Kowalski from the game in favour of an extra skater, this almost enforced act leaving Steelers to score an inevitable empty net goal and wrap up the game 4-2.
The reverse fixture was at the NIC the following Saturday in front of yet another sell-out crowd (the support in Nottingham is nothing if not loyal!!). Panthers were now just playing for pride as hopes of a title had expired thanks to the previous three defeats. Omens did not look good as the Steelers went ahead in the first period; however, that was the spark that Panthers needed and they (by which I mean we) scored three unanswered goals of their own, through David Clarke, Jordan Fox and Rhett Gordon (his first for the club), to go into the first interval with a 3-1 lead. It got better in the second as Beauregard was left all alone in front of the net to tap in the fourth, then Clarke waltzed in to score his second and Panthers’ fifth of the night. No further scoring saw Panthers wrap up a confidence-boosting 5-1 victory over their biggest rivals and left many of the fans wondering what might have been with regards to the league title. Perhaps it was simply the removal of the pressure…
Anyway, the Steelers result was the first of five straight wins for the Panthers. The next night they travelled to Edinburgh to comprehensively defeat the hometown Capitals 9-0 in as one-sided a victory as you will ever see. Then followed a 6-3 home victory over Cardiff Devils in front of over 5,300 fans at the NIC, before a journey to Kirkcaldy to face the Fife Flyers the next night and scrape a 4-3 victory.
Tragedy was to hit the British Ice Hockey community just two days later, however. Kelly Dutiaume, wife of Fife Flyers player/coach Todd, died suddenly while heavily pregnant with twins. Even more tragically, the twins didn’t survive. The shock and sadness was felt by the entire hockey community and suddenly results didn’t seem to matter in the wake of such tragic news.
Fife returned to action against Panthers in a highly emotional atmosphere at the NIC. The Panthers players skated along the Fife players shaking hands with every one as the crowd applauded. A bucket collection organised by Panthers players wives and girlfriends raised over £4,000 for a memorial fund set up to help Todd and his daughter Olivia, aged 3. The game was almost inconsequential by comparison. However, the Flyers put up a sterling performance for their absent coach, taking a 3-1 lead before Panthers clawed the game back to win 4-3, Beauregard scoring a penalty shot to win the game in the final minute. Like I said though, the result hardly mattered.
Panthers then travelled to Coventry the following night to take on bogey team the Blaze, and suffered their first loss in six games. Drawing 3-3 at the second interval the Blaze added two third-period strikes to take the game 5-3. The Challenge Cup Final first leg in Belfast came next [separate report to follow later in the week], then Panthers travelled to Dundee the following night and were deservedly thrashed 8-3 to register their heaviest defeat of the season.
Panthers needed to get the Dundee defeat out of their system quickly, but Hull was never going to be an easy place to go and pick up points. Thankfully, Panthers were on their A-game at the Hull Arena and ground out a professional 4-1 victory in front of a large travelling support, with goals from Matthew Myers, Matt Francis, David Beauregard and Rhett Gordon.
Then followed the Challenge Cup second leg – you may know the result already, but no spoilers here – before the players returned to action after a few days off action against the Braehead Clan at the NIC. With just three league games remaining Panthers needed to build momentum for the end of season Play-Offs, and they started brightly taking an early lead through David Clarke. But Clan went into the interval level thanks to former Panther Jade Galbraith. Jordan Fox then restored the lead in the second period but third-period goals for the Clan by Brock McPherson and Ryan Campbell gave the visitors a 3-2 lead with 12 minutes remaining. As time ticked down, it was coach Corey Neilson who scored a valuable equaliser at 57.57 to send the game into sudden death overtime. Just 36 seconds into the extra period top-scorer David Beauregard pounced to win the points for Panthers in a genuine thriller.
A rare Friday night home game at the NIC was next, as Panthers faced Edinburgh Capitals. In a game that resembled little more than a training session at times, Panthers skated to an easy 7-0 victory with goals from Matt Francis (hat-trick), Sami Ryhanen, Jordan Fox, Danny Meyers and the deadly David Beauregard. The following night Panthers finished their regular season in Northern Ireland against the newly crowned Elite League champions, the Belfast Giants. It was a close match and one that was incredibly feisty at times for an end-of-season encounter. The Giants overcame Panthers in sudden death overtime to take the game 4-3, Panthers goals coming from Robert Lachowicz, Corey Neilson and Matthew Myers.
All of this means that Panthers finish the regular season in third place behind Sheffield and Belfast with 80 points. They will now go on to face Braehead Clan in a two-legged game to earn qualification for the Play-Off Finals weekend over Easter at the NIC.
Until then, keep your eye on the puck…