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Left Panther: April (End of Season Review)

9 April 16 words: Sally Utton

"The weekend brought a sweet taste to the mouth and a fitting end to the season."

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Panthers 2015-16 [Natalie Owen]

 

And so Nottingham Panthers close their season on a fantastic high, winning the Playoffs to add to the Challenge Cup they won in March: a double and two trophies out of a possible three majors. Panthers have failed to qualify for the end-of-season finale – which features winners of four quarter-finals from the best eight teams – for each of the last two seasons. Yet before that, Panthers won it for three consecutive years, and in 2007 as well, giving us five Playoff wins in the Elite League era and inviting complaints of home ice advantage in a one game semi-final and final. However, there is nowhere else at present that has the facilities to host and with a city centre on the doorstep that can cope with an influx of 4,000 ice hockey fans for a weekend. 
 
The quarter-finals were a two-legged, home and away affair. The matchups were as follows, with seeding taken from final positions in the league:
 
(1) Sheffield Steelers v Coventry Blaze (8)
(2) Cardiff Devils v Dundee Stars (7)
(3) Braehead Clan v Fife Flyers (6)
(4) Belfast Giants v Nottingham Panthers (5)
 
The four to progress were Cardiff, Coventry, Fife and Nottingham: teams seeded 2, 8, 6 and 5 respectively. Sheffield set an unwelcome record by being the only Elite League winners ever to fail to make the finals weekend. They struggled to beat Coventry all season, winning only half of their games against them. In the first leg of the play off quarter final, Sheffield gave themselves a mountain to climb, going 0-5 down at the SkyDome Arena. They clawed it back to 3-5 and got within a goal of winning on aggregate in Sheffield in the second leg, but could not finish the job. 
 
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NIC looking bonny on Playoff weekend [photo: Sally Utton]

 

Nottingham had a close game against Belfast at home, taking charge initially and going 2-0 up. However, Belfast scored three goals in five minutes to take the lead and in similar games this season Panthers have collapsed and let more goals in. This time, they gritted their teeth, fought back and ended with a narrow lead (4-3) to take across the Irish Sea. The second leg of the tie was arguably the most determined performance Panthers have showed this season. Net-minder Miika Wiikman looked absolutely solid in net, and would have achieved a shut-out apart from Belfast scoring in the last 12 seconds of the game. There was some controversy over a Belfast goal that was disallowed, as one of their players was in our net at the time, and also over a penalty shot awarded to Panthers. It was converted by upcoming star Evan Mosey. The game finished 3-1 on the night, so 7-4 on aggregate and Nottingham progressed to the final showdown.
 
The NIC was totally sold out, with fans of all ten teams descending on Nottingham from all over the UK. The first semi was expected to be a close game with Cardiff having shown great form in the League and finishing only two points behind Sheffield. However, Coventry have found form of late, with a couple of fast forwards, in Cale Tanaka and Jordan Pietrus, and a giant of a net-minder in 6’8” Canadian Brian Stewart, and zipped into a 4-0 lead by the end of the first period, leaving Cardiff with a mountain to climb. They got it back to 6-2, but it was too little, too late and Coventry progressed to the final. Cardiff Coach Andrew Lord personally apologised to his fan base for the team’s poor performance.  
 
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Blaze win 6-2 [photo: Sally Utton]

 

Nottingham took on the Fife Flyers in the second semi-final, with the latter, as underdogs, having the majority of the arena behind them. It was a tight game with a scoreless first period, Panthers enjoying the majority of possession. It seemed only a matter of time before they wore out the hard-working Scots and the second period ended 3-1 Panthers before Evan Mosey, on a 12-game point streak, finished the challenge off with the final goal to end with a Panthers win 4-1.
 
After a slow-paced and understandably anticlimactic third-place playoff between Cardiff and Fife, won 6-0 by the Welshmen (who called a time out with 12 seconds to go, to allow their retiring Captain, Tyson Marsh, a chance to say goodbye to their fans in the same arena in which he had been knocked out cold by Panthers Cam Janssen earlier in the season), it was time for the final.  
 
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Panthers and Blaze line up for the final [photo: Sally Utton]

 

The atmosphere was now electric, with Panthers fans again taking on the majority of the arena. The contingent of Steelers fans managed to get over any antipathy toward their quarter-final conquerors Coventry by – surprise, surprise – vocally cheering them on against Panthers. Fortunately for us, head coach Corey Neilson – who has recently announced a two-year contract extension – is a master of winning big games, having prevailed in nine of the 10 finals in which he’s led Nottingham.
 
Panthers were clinical in defence and made the Coventry scorers look relatively ordinary in comparison to their six-goal showing against Cardiff. Miika Wiikman had a shut-out, making it just one goal conceded across the weekend’s 120 minutes. Yet at the other end Brian Stewart was no pushover, and Panthers had to work hard to get two goals past him, Stephen Schultz scoring in the first period and Kevin Quick in the third for a 2-0 victory. Celebrations ensued – on ice, on the NIC balcony afterwards, and into the night for the players and committed supporters. 
 
 
The weekend brought a sweet taste to the mouth and a fitting end to the season. The Panthers actually finished the Elite League 2015/16 in a disappointing fifth position out of ten teams. They closed out the last weekend of the league with back to back losses – 4-3 losses to Sheffield and Cardiff – and a dispiriting zero-point weekend, the second in four weeks. Coach Corey Neilson said: "The league is tough and you can play teams when they're hot or cold. We ended up playing 15 games in 34 days at the end, largely against championship-level teams. We were in a good position but ran out of gas. Playing every other day kills you”.
 
Sheffield went on to win the league for the second year in a row. Key players in orange were all prevalent in the final game, with Tyler Mosienko and Mathieu Roy scoring goals. Net-minder Marek Pink enjoyed a turn-around in form, as he started his stint at the club with a lot of criticism. The Yorkshire fans were happy by the end of the season, though, and set a more welcome record with the highest ever attendance in a regular season game: 9,203. Steelers coach Paul Thompson has now won the League five times: four times previously with Coventry Blaze and this campaign in Sheffield. The league victory also confirmed Sheffield’s place in next season’s European competition, the Champions Hockey League. As Playoff winners, Panthers will represent the UK in the second-tier Continental Cup.
 
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Panthers pick up the cup [photo: Sally Utton]

 

Which players will be on board to do that? Panthers are traditionally slow in announcing them but have already secured two-year deals for fans favorites’ Cam Janssen and Evan Mosey. Halfway through contracts are Geoff Waugh, Brad Moran and Jeff Dimmen. It remains to be seen if either net-minder will be retained. Wiikman started the year well, faded a little mid-season due to injury, and came back at the end with an excellent record, finishing second in the league on statistics to Ben Bowns of Cardiff.
 
Corey Neilson’s new deal is probably justified. Opinion over the amiable Canadian was increasingly mixed as the season went on: on the one hand, he has brought more silverware to Panthers than any other coach (ten major trophies), on the other the consistency required to bring home a league title has been lacking. At the end of the 2015 season, Neil Black took a long time to renew Neilson’s position and Corey himself was apparently exploring other options. Nottingham had finished last season without a major trophy for the first time since 2009. There was a fourth-place finish in the league, failure to make the finals weekend for the second year on the trot, and semi-final elimination in the Challenge Cup, with the only consolation a conference win. Sheffield fired Gerad Adams, last season’s coach, despite winning the league. The faith in Neilson has been largely vindicated, with the Challenge Cup residing in Nottingham for the eighth time and the Playoff Trophy for the sixth time, but you feel a closer challenge in next year’s Elite League will be required.
 
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...then celebrate with the fans [photo: Sally Utton]

 

At the end of a hard-fought season, trophies were shared out across the league, with Nottingham being the only team to pick up two:
 
Elite League: Sheffield
Challenge Cup: Nottingham
Playoffs: Nottingham
Gardiner Conference: Braehead Clan (Glasgow)
Erhardt Conference: Cardiff
 
And that’s more or less it for ice hockey fans: five long summer months to get through, with only rumours for entertainment, until Panthers’ season starts again in September. In the meantime, there’s some international hockey to watch with GB versus Poland in Nottingham and Coventry back-to-back this weekend; there's also the World Championships, the University Varsity game and the NHL Playoff season extends well beyond the UK season into June. Have a good summer!
 
* * * * *
 
LEFT PANTHER’S BEST AND WORST OF 2015-16…  
 
Fan favourite: It has to be Cam Janssen. He is the most entertaining and enthusiastic player. He has NHL experience, yet obviously loves his time in Nottingham. He demonstrates total commitment in every game and you can literally hear him going around the rink with his huge checks, hitting players (and often himself) into the boards. He has been an extremely effective enforcer that has allowed other players space to play, which was lacking from the team last season. Our previous enforcer, Brent Henley, won plenty of fights, but he spent more time leaving his team short of a player as he sat in the penalty box. Janssen has the balance just right: does the grunt work yet plays a smart game. Rick Strachan stated that they send out the Janssen, Farmer and Lawrence/Myers line (bish, bash, bosh line) to up the physical presence, followed by the skilled players shortly afterwards. Janssen has been close to current team captain David Clarke in many team photos recently and I suspect he may be a leader in waiting.
 
Import of the season: Juraj Kolnik finished fifth in the scoring charts with 32 goals and 37 assists. He was the only Nottingham player in the top 20 and it would be a huge boost to see him back in black and gold next season.
 
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kickin' back after a hard season's work... [photo: Sally Utton]

 

Home player of season: The Brits have made a solid contribution to the team, but none of them have really shone this year. Matthew Myers is probably the marginal favourite, the only Panthers GB player to be nominated in this year’s Elite League awards.
 
Breakthrough star:  Evan Mosey has had a fantastic season, scoring the game-winning goal in the Challenge Cup and putting up consistent numbers. He has speed, pace and commitment, and also dual nationality (born in Illinois, adopted GB as his second country). He is a rising star and will play for GB in the upcoming international competitions ahead of the World Championship, although he might need to learn the words to the anthem first.
 
Biggest let-down #1: Robert Lachowicz was challenged at the beginning of the season by Corey Neilson to have a better season than last year. He finished 118th in the scoring chart with only 5 goals and 14 assists (he finished in 45th place last season, with 14 goals and 29 assists). However, he is a regular player on penalty kills and the Panthers have the second best kill in the league this season, so he is clearly valued, but his place with the team next year could be interesting.
 
Biggest let-down #2: The statistics are not quite as damning for David Clarke, but Corey Neilson is on record saying that the captain should be the best player on the ice, and this season, aside from in the big games, Clarke seemed to lack his usual energy, which could rub off on his team mates. He finished 46th in the top scorers tables, with 20 goals and 27 assists, but he was only one point ahead of David Ling who played just under half as many games.
 
Fight of season: Cam Janssen versus Tyson Marsh on December 19, with Cam standing up for teammate Brad Moran who was injured by Marsh in a previous game. The fight resulted in a knock-out.
 
 
Match of season: Has to be the Challenge Cup semi-final at Ice Sheffield where the Panthers thrashed the Steelers 8-0, leaving the Sheffield staff, team and fans speechless. Panthers finished the job off in Nottingham the next night, winning 2-0, so 10-0 on aggregate, and knocking the sore Steelers out of the competition. Ten. Nil.
 
Worst performance: There were a few surprise losses for Nottingham, which probably went a long way to costing them the league title. One of the more difficult to take was against Cardiff at the end of January, losing 0-3 despite having 32 shots to Cardiff’s 18 and being shut out at home for the first time in a while. The Panthers were not short of chances either, with three power plays and still no goals.
 
Quote of season: Corey Neilson was unusually vocal post-match on referee Rab Cowan after the Panthers’ loss 4-2 in Braehead in March: “He was poor. He was inept. It was unjust.” The comments were deemed sufficient to merit Neilson and the club a fine.
 
Follow Sally on Twitter: @sautton22
 
 
 

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