[illustration: Natalie Owen]
Nottingham Panthers have had fans on a 5:2 diet in November, winning five games out of their last seven and losing only two. The net result of this is them sitting comfortably at the top of the Elite League table, two points clear of Cardiff, their nearest rivals, and with games in hand. So all the Panthers need to do – yes, all – is keep on winning, and they cannot be caught. Of course, if only it were as easy as that. We aren’t even halfway through the season. Still, glass half-full...
It’s also road trip time in December, with only two games out of the next ten to be played at the NIC. To boost our chances of surviving a tough month still at the summit of the table, the team have fortunately had a few players return from injury of late. Robert Farmer and Geoff Waugh are back from longer term injuries, as are Robert Lachowicz and David Clarke from their short-term absence. On top of that, David Ling is back, having missed one game after being checked to the head in Sheffield, although on the downside Logan MacMillan picked up a muscle injury in training which has ruled him out for the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Stephen Schultz is slowly improving after his nasty leg injury and we should see him back on the ice in the next few weeks. It’s been worse!
Hardy [photo: Emma Sleight]
Panthers also made a new signing in 27-year-old Kyle Hardy – a relatively small defenceman at 5’9’’ who hails from Montreal and played four seasons in France before moving to Sweden this year. Neilson said of his latest catch: “We’ve been patient throughout the recruitment process both now and in the summer. We had boxes that needed ticking if we were to add to the roster we already have. We wanted a D-man with a left shot who could jump into the plays. We wanted someone who can stick to the systems and we wanted someone who can read the game. The references I had on Kyle immediately ticked those boxes and more and we all particularly liked the references to him being very mobile, a team player, a leader and someone who hates to lose. One respected former coach told me he is a very sour loser.” He flew from France straight to Edinburgh to join the team, and played the same day, something of a fairytale debut as he earned man of the match in a Panthers win.
The old rivalry against Sheffield has been renewed this month with a game in each other’s barn to warm up the pre-Christmas perios. We beat them 4-1 at the Motorpoint Arena on November 15, and they returned the favour a fortnight later to beat us 6-4 at the NIC.
Steelers have had their perennial net-minder injury problems, starting the game up there with their 21-year-old back-up goalie in net. It’s fair to say Brad Day looked a bit like a rabbit in headlights: Panthers travelling support were singing the punning “had a bad day”
by the end. Sheffield started well, with most of the early possession, but David Clarke got the first goal after only six minutes.
Kolnik [photo: Emma Sleight]
It soon became a typical Panthers-Steelers
affair when Cam Janssen fought Zack Fitzgerald, who both threw their fair share of punches (and had a show of respect at the end, as they tapped each other on the leg). Jeff Dimmen and Jason Hewitt then dropped the gloves – although the fight was a draw, Hewitt seemed happy to cling on to Dimmen, while the latter looked like he got a good tug on Hewitt’s beard when he was supposedly grabbing for his shirt, something that numerous people have wanted to do for a while! Sheffield's Tyler Mosienko was thrown out of the game for “spearing” Andy Bohmbach (“spearing” is where a player takes the blade of the stick and stabs an opponent). And in amongst all that, occasionally an ice hockey match broke out.
Sheffield settled the ledger of that 4-1 home defeat by taking a 4-1 lead in Nottingham over a Panthers side that struggled to get going after an arduous game the night before in Cardiff. Panthers could not stay out of the penalty box and seemed to spend most of the game playing a man down. Playing against the odds sometimes appears to suit them, but not this time. This bunch of players does not give up, though, and they really battled to get it back to 4-5, when Steelers added an empty-net goal to take it to 4-6 in the last two minutes of the game.
A week earlier, Panthers had a double header weekend away in Edinburgh, a tough team to contend with this season and who had won eight out of their last nine games at home. They split the series, taking one game each. In both games Edinburgh took an early lead, in fact scoring the first two goals. Friday, the Panthers managed a fantastic comeback to win 3-2. Saturday, they lost 5-3, having tried another comeback, this time from 0-3 down, eventually running out of time.
Swindlehurst [photo: Emma Sleight]
The talking point on Friday was when Edinburgh thought they had equalised with 19 seconds of the game left. But the player in their penalty box who was on a four-minute penalty for a high stick, jumped out of the box after two minutes by mistake, so the goal was disallowed. On Saturday, as was the case in the Sheffield game, they took too many penalties and Captain David Clarke was unusually thrown out of the game for “checking from behind”. David Ling picked a strategic fight with the league’s top goal scorer, Ryan Hayes, and caused him to sit out of the game for 5 minutes.
Andy Bohmbach scored when we were a man down, and it has been a good month on the goalscoring front. Juraj Kolnik has had a great month, jumping all the way up to fifth in the Elite League scoring charts, with 12 goals and 20 assists. Andy Bohmbach, with 11 goals and 15 assists, is the only other Nottingham player in the top 20. Paul Swindlehurst scored his first ever goal for Panthers in November, against Coventry, and decided to make it two for the price of one.
At the other end of the ice, Miika Wiikman deservedly achieved his first shut-out in the same game and only conceded one goal the following night against Sheffield, earning himself EIHL Player of the Week. In fact, Wiikman leads the league goaltenders with the highest save percentage of 92.2 and the lowest number of goals against him: just two per game. By way of comparison, Manchester, Edinburgh and Sheffield’s goalies are averaging double that, at nearly four per game.
In other good news, two Nottingham-based players – Panthers forward Ollie Betteridge and Connor Glossop from the Lions – have recently been named in the Great Britain’s under-20 squad for the World Championship (Division 1B) campaign. GB were promoted from Division 2A last year and will face hosts France, plus Japan, Poland, Slovenia and Ukraine. The six-team International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournament runs from December 12 to 18, with the group winners being promoted to Division 1A.
Betteridge [photo: Emma Sleight]
Meanwhile, Panthers are through to the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup and will face their sister club Braehead Clan at home on January 20, the first leg of a two-legged match decided on aggregate. In the league, we head to Ireland for another double header next weekend against Belfast, currently fifth in the table although not a team you would ever write off. Then it’s a weekend in Scotland, playing three different teams in three nights, before Cardiff Devils at home and then another spicy Sheffield Steelers double-header.
It’s a key time for Panthers to hold their nerve, stock up on points and ensure we are not on a lean diet going into the New Year.