Panthers 2015-16 [illustration: Natalie Owen]
It doesn’t feel like a month ago
when I wrote that Panthers needed to find some consistency in order to mount a realistic challenge to this year’s Elite League title. Well, sadly it hasn’t quite been there, despite securing seven wins out of their last ten games and having a near fully-fit team. Cardiff are now ten points ahead of Nottingham at the top of the League table and pulling away from the pack. Whilst it is not yet mathematically impossible for Sheffield, Nottingham and Belfast to catch them, the team with the best chance is the Braehead Clan: they are the nearest contenders, have an easier run-in to the last set of fixtures, and sit on the most games in hand.
Whilst a 70 percent win rate should feel positive for the Panthers, the nature of some of the recent performances has left fans walking out of the arena feeling like a win has been a loss. The game against the Fife Flyers on January 10 was possibly the worst showing in any two periods this season. Panthers looked flat and tired from the beginning, went 0-2 down with the home crowd even booing the players off after the second period. Coach Corey Neilson admitted he would have pulled his hair out in the first two periods "if I had any!" Andy Bohmbach said he was fired up by the crowd and coach’s reaction and he turned round the game, scoring a penalty shot that sparked a comeback to 2-2, forcing overtime. Short-term net-minder Shane Madolora held up strong on his home debut and saved all three penalty shots, giving Panthers a skin-of-the-teeth win, which Fife probably deserved more than us.
Shane Madalora in action against Sheffield [photo: Sally Utton]
It was a similar story when Panthers played the Braehead Clan in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup. They went ahead 4-0 after a fantastic first period in which everything clicked. The Clan were not giving up though and after some weak play from Nottingham the scoreline finished a marginal 5-4 win. Whilst it was a victory on paper, Panthers should have finished way ahead, casting some doubt as to whether they would win away from home in the second leg. However, Nottingham absolutely held their own on the return fixture and won 5-3 on the night, taking it 10-7 on aggregate. Two late consolation goals were conceded about which Miika Wiikman was furious, slamming his stick onto the ice three times in anger, which is not his usual style at all.
The actual losses have been more explicable: one to Cardiff
away, 1-3 (not many teams have succeeded in winning on the small Welsh home ice this season) and then away to rivals Sheffield
, in a tight, high-scoring game, losing by one goal. Retrospectively, the replay tape
casts doubt over the first Sheffield goal, as it looks like the puck bounced off the post and did not go in. The referee, Michael Hicks, initially saw it as a no-goal on the night but changed his mind after lengthy discussions with the goal judge and audible encouragement from the home crowd.
action from a tight match against Steelers [photo: Sally Utton]
Probably the worst loss to watch, though, was last weekend at home against Cardiff again, embarrassingly losing 0-3 in front of a near sold-out NIC, the first time Nottingham have not scored at home this season, with Corey Neilson admitting the team had “too many passengers”.
On the plus side, we have had a return to something like full health. There’s a full set of imports, although still playing with one down on the allowed maximum (13 out of 13 on January 26 for the first time this season) and three fit goalies with the return of Miika Wiikman after injury and paternity leave. Shane Madolora has moved out of a hotel to official Panthers digs and Dan Green remains in the wings and ready to play when needed. The only player who is not currently fit is defenceman Jeff Dimmen, who is still recovering from an upper body injury. All this is finally allowing the coaches to ice four forward lines, which they announced as their intention at the beginning of the season and which should tire out teams with smaller rosters by the third period. Rather than settle down with obviously skilled and complementary pairings, the lines still seem to be being regularly mixed up, which is bemusing, at times, for players and observers alike.
Juraj Kolnik is still the only Nottingham player in the top 20 league scorers. The next two players behind him in terms of points are Andy Bohmbach and David Ling. Matthew Myers earned himself Elite League Player of the Week as he scored three goals and four assists in seven days. David Clarke leads the British players in terms of points, with 36 (15 goals and 21 assists) in 42 games. Cam Janssen, still the fans’ favourite due to his infectious enthusiasm and protective influence on the ice, has announced that he would be keen to stay in Nottingham next season, maybe longer.
Myers: EIHL POTW [photo: Emma Sleight]
Other teams have announced some star signings, Cardiff securing the services of ex-NHL player Ryan Russell and Sheffield bagging Ryan Hayes, the league’s top goal scorer, who moved mid-season from Edinburgh against the “gentleman’s agreement” through which clubs agree they will not take players from other UK clubs during a season. You could say it’s karma that he’s already offskied back to the US of A. Panthers have sat out the trading, waiting for players to come back from injuries – apart, that is, from retaining the aforementioned additional goalie, perhaps learning from Sheffield who are suddenly again relying on their 21-year-old back-up netminder Brad Day while their second starting goalie is sidelined.
Panthers are through to the Challenge Cup semi-finals against the Sheffield Steelers with back-to-back games on February 23 and 24, away then at home. Naturally, there’s a fair bit of controversy over who should have home ice advantage in the second leg. The rules state this should be the highest qualifying team, which would be Sheffield, but Nottingham were drawn out of the bag (plastic!) first, so have apparently maintained it should be at the NIC. The Steelers Official Twitter feed publicly and directly accused the Panthers management of being “obstructive” in terms of agreeing dates, so Sheffield only have availability of their smaller rink, Ice Sheffield.
The opportunity of any Panthers fans seeing the first leg in Sheffield has been further minimised by Steelers primarily selling tickets in person and on the phone to their own season ticket holders, then stating that it’s unlikely they will be airing their usually regular webcast. The fireworks seem have started off the ice, even before this fixture gets here...
So, with only 14 league games left it looks like Panthers will finish in the top third of the table, giving them a decent run-in to make the playoffs. Since they have not made it to the playoff final weekend for the last two years, they will want to be sure of a presence there, which will take place on the first weekend of April. This team has buckets of skill and has clearly shown that they have the ability to put it all together, whilst also crashing and burning at times. If resilience prevails, there is still a slim chance of two trophies (cup and playoffs), even if the much-desired league title is not one of them. Hopefully we do not have to wait another 57 years for that one to come round again.