One month into the season and the Nottingham Panthers are running hot. Back to back home games last weekend produced two wins out of two and we are now sitting pretty at the top of the league. In fact, we may well have turned a corner this weekend, as Panthers had not had it all their own way in the last month – of the games in September, they won only just over half: four out of seven.
The first league game of the season, against the Dundee Stars, was highly entertaining, as can be gleaned from the number of shots on goal, which, at 53 to 27, were nearly double in favour of the Panthers. There were two goals each on target, two fights (by Brits Robert Farmer and Steve Lee), sudden-death overtime, and an eventual win for Nottingham on penalty shots. It was a good win, too, for Dundee have started solidly this season, despite finishing bottom of the league last season. They beat tough opponents Belfast Giants only 24 hours prior to their NIC visit and have an in-form goalie in the shape of 36-year-old Czech, Vlastimil Lakosil. Panthers’ new netminder Miika Wiikman saved all the penalty shots fired at him, whilst Lakosil may have had enough rubber fired at him during the game, letting new boys Andy Bohmbach and Stephen Schultz score on penalties in their first ever Panthers game.
Mika Wiikman. photo: Emma Sleight, @PanthersOTR
Of the other newbies, Miika Wiikman had big skates to step into with the departure of Panthers previous goalie, Craig Kowalski, arguably the league's top net-minder for the last five years. However, Wiikman has quietly gone about his business and this weekend made 63 saves in two games while totting up an impressive save percentage of 96.9. He saved one slap shot with his collar bone, turning the arena deathly quiet whilst the trainer attended to him, before a relieved roar erupted when he got back on his feet.
American Cam Janssen joined the team after the first few games, an ex-NHL “tough guy” enforcer who played 336 games in the top US league. He was described as having “high energy” by the Patnthers website, and his enthusiasm and character is both obvious to see and highly infectious. He has already established himself as a fans’ favourite, tearing around the ice like a bulldog whenever he is on, hitting anything that moves in the opposition’s colours. The human wrecking-ball recently missed checking one player into the boards and the whole barrier seemed to move several inches to the right in his wake. He already has a man of the match award and, not being familiar with the traditional Panthers routine of the centre-ice circle and wave to the crowd, skated around beaming at the whole Arena with his arms pumped up like he had just won the Stanley Cup. His post-match interview [see below] oozes enthusiasm and Coach Corey Neilson must be very happy with the team spirit (and protection) he will generate.
If anyone can, Cam Janssen can. photo: Emma Sleight, @PanthersOTR
Stephen Schultz has already made a good impression on the ice with stick-handling skills that look unreal and three goals last weekend alone. Hailing from the USA, he previously played in the German League and in Texas.
The highest goalscorer for Panthers so far is Brad Moran, who is seventh in the entire Elite League. His reputation for being a playmaker is clearly justified as he has scored three goals of his own, as well as having seven assists to date, showing his ability to anticipate play and feed the puck to his teammates at the right time.
A less fortunate month has been endured by Geoff Waugh who was hospitalised after a game against the league’s new team, Manchester Storm. Waugh blocked a slap shot with his chest which broke two of his ribs and nearly required surgery to drain fluid from his lungs. He is now out of action for six to nine weeks.
Matthew Myers was injured in the same game when he over-extended his arm and staggered off the ice holding the injured limb. It looked extremely painful. He recovered enough to get back into the game and see it out, though.
Stephen Schultz, Rob Farmer, David Clarke. photo: Emma Sleight, @PanthersOTR
Panthers Captain, David Clarke, who was injured for the majority of last season, has also been sidelined for a number of games. He took a “high hit” and has been rested since, but is expected back with the team next weekend. The club have reiterated that his problem is not the same as last season's long-term shoulder injury.
Also on the injury list is 27-year-old Austrian defenceman Andreas Wiedergut, who only joined the team in the first week of September on a short-term basis to cover late drop-out Theo Peckham. Wiedergut had been playing top-level hockey in Salzburg and Graz in his homeland and looked like a good addition in his first couple of games but picked up a hip injury at training and was ruled out. He has since been released from his contract as it looks like a long-term problem and the club are seemingly not tolerant of injuries this season after the last two seasons were blighted by this issue.
One of the most exciting games last month was that against the Manchester Storm, which counted for both league and cup points. Nottingham’s defence has looked solid so far this season, with no game being won against them by more than one goal. They defended six power plays in this game and did not allow Manchester to score, despite the one-man advantage. By contrast, Panthers had seven power plays and scored four goals with the extra player.
Indeed, while Nottingham’s goal-scoring has taken a little longer to click generally so far this season, but they found the net big time in this game and racked up the goals, winning 7-2. Brad Moran picked up a hat-trick, Juraj Kolnik scored one (with three assists), and there was a first ever Panthers’ goal for Cam Janssen who gleefully scored the seventh goal. The Manchester goalie, Zane Kalemba, was getting more than a little frustrated by the end and it was more reminiscent of the Sheffield-Steelers-style encounter as a fight broke out after nearly every goal Panthers scored, with Kalemba slashing players with his stick and firing a puck into the crowd in temper.
Nottingham have yet to face arch-enemies Sheffield, who have a strong team and are playing well so far, but many of their games have been in the Challenge Cup. We will have to get the measure of them quickly as the old rivals will face each other – in front of a probable packed house – four times in October, much to the fans’ delight.
Coach Corey Neilson has his testimonial game to look forward to on 21 October, and there are some familiar names returning to Nottingham to show their support, including: Craig Kowalski, Matt Francis, Brandon Benedict, Sean McAslan, Eric Werner, Jonathan Weaver, Mark Richardson, Leigh Salters, Bruce Richardson, Guilliame Doucet, Kevin Bergin, Dan Tessier and Jonathan Boxill.
Ling the Merciless returns! photo: Sally Utton
So, yes, it is early days, but Panthers sit at the top of the league for now. They are also third out of five teams in their Challenge Cup group where the top four teams go through to the next stage. We are a long way to sorting the things that needed sorting, particularly the addition of some high-quality players at the attacking end of the team. There is already much jubilation with the news of David Ling’s signing, arguably the best play-maker to represent Nottingham in the modern era and, at 40 years young, some 11 years above the Panthers roster's average age. Ling last played for us two and a half years ago, the grand slam season, in which he was our top point scorer. He will be a welcome addition to the team and no doubt a thorn in all other teams' sides.
If we can address improvements in team chemistry, consistent line combinations and, lower down the list of priorities, the match night intro video (which seriously needs sharpening up!), things should be looking good. But overall we are well on the road to a successful season and long may it continue.
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