Panthers 2015-16 [illustration: Natalie Owen]
The Nottingham Panthers have had a heavy festive schedule, playing twelve games in the last month (eight of which have been away from home) and finishing with only five wins. As a result, they’ve dropped from second to fourth place in the Elite League table. Cardiff are starting to pull away at the top, with Belfast, Sheffield and Nottingham giving chase, each with games in hand.
Yet again, injuries have taken their never-ending toll on the Panthers. Top scorer, Stephen Schultz was out for a total of ten weeks with his leg injury and it was a welcome relief to see him back on the ice on January 2 when he scored a goal (dedicated to his Mum on her 60th birthday) and an assist in his first game back. That same night Andy Bohmbach also scored his first goal in eleven games, after seeming to lack a spark (or perhaps his favourite team-mate) in recent games.
Top goalie Miika Wiikman seems to have been carrying a mysterious injury since mid-November, which was originally described by the club as a minor muscle sprain and then a temperature. Since then he has been playing one game, missing another. A new goalie has thus been signed to provide some cover: Shane Madolora
, who comes from the USA and was most recently playing in Italy. GB international Steve Lee was injured by a collision into the boards and is out “for a while” with a leg injury (fortunately not a break), while Jeff Dimmen is out with an upper body injury and Brad Moran was injured in Cardiff by a nasty mid-ice hit to the head, which took him out with a neck injury for several weeks.
Wiikman: mystery injury [photo: Emma Sleight]
All these injuries mean Chris Lawrence, last year’s top point scorer for Nottingham, has been signed again on a short-term contract as he works his way around the league, already playing for Sheffield and Coventry this season. Panthers' head coach Corey Neilson said: "He knows us, he knows our systems and he will be a good fit". Problem is Lawrence was also on the injury list, with no details given, for the first game of this year, against Edinburgh. It never rains…
Meanwhile, Kyle Hardy, our newest defenceman, was released from the club suddenly on December 20. The club wished the player well, but said that it had not worked out as expected. Neilson said, somewhat enigmatically: “Things haven’t panned out as we had hoped. He’s a professional and he’s hoping to pick up another team as soon as possible but we, as an organisation, need to get back to where we were.”
With all the changes in the team and sporadic availability of players it is perhaps hardly surprising that there is a mixed bag of results. But then we would not be expected to lose twice to Coventry, currently eighth in the league, away and at home. Both games finished 3-5, one with our number one net-minder in goal and the other with Dan Green as back up. After these back-to-back defeats Corey Neilson told the fans they can expect "better" in 2016. The team’s malfunctioning can perhaps be grasped by this stat: Nottingham only have one player in the top 20 league scorers – Juraj Kolnik, fifth with 44 points and 18 goals – while Cardiff have the top goal scorer, Joey Martin, plus another four in the top 20. That’s cutting edge.
Juaraj Kolnik [photo: Sally Utton]
Nevertheless, despite the relatively disappointing results the home crowds have been flocking en masse for the last seven home games at the NIC, averaging over 5,500 of the 7,000 capacity arena. The traditional Christmas game versus the Sheffield Steelers sold out as usual, and in record time. In fact, factor in the game up the M1 and over 16,000 people watched the December 26 and 27 double-header, which shows fantastic support for what is regarded as a non-mainstream sport.
The spoils for the usually feisty encounters between Sheffield and Nottingham were split, with each team winning the game at home. At NIC, captain David Clarke did not hesitate to set the pace with an opening goal after just 92 seconds and Chris Lawrence scored against his old team. The Steelers bench drew a penalty for “abuse of the officials”, giving Panthers a man advantage, which they used and scored to give a final score of 5-3 and a measure of revenge for the previous day, when Sheffield took the Boxing Day honours at the Motorpoint Arena, winning a close game 2-1. (Now, if I do the maths on this…) Dan Green was in nets after Wiikman failed a late fitness test. Logan MacMillan scored for Nottingham to take the lead, but Steelers equalised from a tight angle on the left wing to beat Dan Green. Panthers kept the pressure on the home net, but Sheffield took the win with a power play goal.
Stoush with the Steelers [photo: SallyUtton]
The game against Cardiff Devils
on December 19 will be remembered for a dramatic fight, rather than another 3-5 loss (a bizarrely popular scoreline of late). The fight
resulted in an unusual total knock-out to one of their players, Tyson Marsh, by the Panthers’ Cam Janssen and a baying, gladiatorial crowd reaction. The latter has played previously as an enforcer in the NHL, tough American and Canadian league. The reason for the fight dated back to a previous game in which Tyson Marsh injured our player, Brad Moran, with an illegal check to the head
, which left him injured for several weeks. The League's Department of Player Safety (DOPS) initially ruled that Marsh should be given a five-match ban. However, the Cardiff management appealed the decision and the ban was controversially cut from five games to just two. This decision was made by a four-man independent panel, with no direct connection to DOPS or the Elite League. Even so, the Elite League needs to be careful not to support a message that it is possible for players to get away with hard hits to the head by setting a dangerous precedent over this incident and encouraging clubs to seek reductions in bans. A two-game ban is equivalent to the penalty for throwing a water bottle on the ice and hardly compares to concussion!
Head injuries are a hot topic across many sports – from cricket to rugby union and of course boxing – and the subject of passionate ongoing debate in the US ice hockey right now. The family of a recently deceased player Steve Montador is suing the NHL over concussions and other brain injuries the defenceman suffered during his playing career. Montador died in February last year, and an autopsy showed the 35-year-old suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease that can be caused by repetitive brain trauma. It is not something that can be swept under the carpet.
Dan Green: Braehead heroics [photo: Sally Utton]
Back with the on-ice stuff, the Scottish weekend mid-December posed a tough schedule, even for seasoned hockey players, with three games in three nights. Despite the table standings, our opponents all sitting in the lower half, we didn’t fare as well as we would have hoped, beginning with a 2-5 loss to Dundee on the Friday night. The Panthers had twice as many shots on goal as Dundee, 46 to their 23, but could not convert shots to goals. On Saturday against the Braehead Clan it was a closer affair which went to overtime and a tense penalty shoot-out. Dan Green stood on his head to keep Nottingham in the shoot-out and claim the win 4-3. On the Sunday Panthers lost again, this time to Fife, another 2-5 reverse. A telling statistic is that Cardiff did the same Scottish road trip the weekend before Panthers and picked up 5 out of 6 available points, three more than Panthers managed.
So, after a multitude of losses, Panthers needed a resounding win to start off 2016, and delivered against Edinburgh last weekend. It was to be expected, since Edinburgh came into the National Ice Centre, newly renamed as Nottingham Motorpoint Arena, on the back of eight straight defeats and walked into a determined Panthers side. The loss of four players from the game (Wiikman, Lawrence, Lee, Dimmen) sent jitters around the home crowd. It did not deter the Panthers and they delivered a convincing 8-2 win. Neilson regularly mixes up the lines for the team and during this game, he iced a veterans line of Moran, Ling and Kolnik who scored five goals and 13 points between them, with a collective age of over 110 years. David Ling is proving his worth and has 23 points (goals and assists) to his name over 19 games. A point a game is considered to be a very valuable player.
Ling the King
This month sees Panthers contest the quarter finals of the Challenge Cup against the Braehead Clan (at home on January 20, away on January 27). The aggregate winner will play Fife or Sheffield in the semi-final, with the final taking place on March 6 in Sheffield. Panthers failed to make the final for the first time last year, after previously winning for five consecutive years, so it would be good to return to winning ways and get some silverware back in the cabinet.
Meanwhile, this is still a league where any team can beat any team on a given night and all teams are suffering unexpected defeats. As we head quickly towards the business end of the season, this is a key time to put together a good, consistent run. This Nottingham team seems to be the “comeback kings”, as they often concede an early goal or two (and have probably ended up chasing too many games for their own liking), but they have demonstrated they have enough firepower and strength to come back. It will be interesting to see, with the return of Stephen Schultz (and preferably some other injured Panthers), whether they can take and keep the lead in games. If so, they still have as good a chance as any team of bringing home a trophy, or trophies, come the end of March.