Nottingham Panthers have won the first major trophy of the three that can be bagged in a season (four if you count the conference). Yes, we brought the Challenge Cup home last weekend, a trophy we had won five times consecutively until last year, when Cardiff Devils beat Sheffield Steelers in the final after we had crashed out early. This year the standalone final was held on neutral ice in Sheffield, and it was an incredibly tight and tense match. Both teams played a superb defensive game, and it felt like it would never end. Panthers had the upper hand, with 48 shots on goal to Cardiff’s fifteen, this despite some inconsistent officiating with several very soft calls going against Nottingham.
Initially, after a goalless draw in regular time, it was announced that the game would be decided by 20 minutes of sudden death overtime, and would keep going beyond that until someone scored. However, it was then announced that it would go to a penalty shoot-out after the first 20 minutes. Fortunately, the latter was not required as Evan Mosey fired home the game winning goal with only 4 minutes left to play. Panthers had the majority of possession in overtime and it seemed as though Cardiff's best chance might be to score on a breakaway, against the run of play. The move that led to the goal saw Robert Lachowicz bearing down on Ben Bowns in the Cardiff net, but he was brought down and spun virtually across the goal, but as he was getting up from the ice Brad Moran made a perfect pass to Mosey who buried it with an amazing slap shot. The Arena erupted and the celebrations went on for some time, with players bringing their WAGS and children onto the ice and firing champagne around. Net-minder Miika Wiikman’s son, mini Miika, looked like he has plenty of potential to take over from his Dad as he ran around the ice freely, without even a pair of skates on his feet.
Matchwinning goal by Panthers hero, number 17, Evan Mosey
Panthers’ run-in to the Cup final gave them two deliciously sweet wins over old enemy, the Sheffield Steelers. The first leg was held at Ice Sheffield, after some controversy over scheduling. The away fans were in a smaller minority than usual, as tickets were rather hard to come by. However, it was only the Panthers voices that could be heard for most of the match as we tore into the Steelers with a crushing 8-0 victory. Our opponents couldn't do anything right, appearing lost for a game plan and Paul Thompson, the Steelers' coach, glumly admitted that the performance was an “embarrassment to the organisation and fans”.
The return leg in Nottingham the following night was pretty much a done deal as the Steelers, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not seem to have enough fight left in them to mount a comeback. It was always going to be an anticlimax, although there were at least a few physical fights, Zak Fitzgerald and Cam Janssen doing their bit to live up to the Sheffield-Nottingham tradition. The score on the night was 2-0, giving a huge 10-0 win on aggregate, the largest on record between the two teams and progressing Nottingham to the final.
Sheffield Arena: 1-0 to Panthers in the final, 8-0 in the semis
Back in the league, Panthers have slipped to fifth place and their chances of claiming the title are now looking pretty slim as they need to win all of their five remaining games and rely on other teams' results at the same time. Belfast would have to beat Cardiff at least once in the three remaining fixtures between the two. It is now most likely a two-horse race between Sheffield and Cardiff, the former having only recently taken over at the top of the table. Nottingham play Sheffield twice and Cardiff once, so could still throw a spanner in the works.
In a nutshell, Panthers have continued their yo-yo form and were soundly beaten 6-1 in the Coventry Skydome only four days after the high of winning the Challenge Cup. The weekend before that they slipped up twice, turning in two losses and a zero-point weekend, which champions just cannot do. In a post-match interview following the game against the Braehead Clan on February 28, Coach Corey Neilson spoke out unusually vehemently to criticise the referee and earned himself a fine for his words. Additionally, Panthers enforcer Cam Janssen was thrown out of the game for checking to the head, an incident that was automatically referred to the Department of Player Safety, who did not impose an additional penalty.
shaking hands with Cardiff after the Challenge Cup
The League game against Cardiff two days before the Cup final was a dominant display with Panthers winning 6-1 and taking he confidence into the final against the same opposition. Back up net-minder Dan Green was given ten minutes of ice time, either to rest Miika Wiikman or to send a message of confidence to the opposition. It was a quite different result the previous Friday when Belfast came to town. After a tight game which was 1-0 at the end of the second, Panthers collapsed in the third period to a 5-1 loss. This came at the end of an intense run of fixtures, with six games in ten days.
Over the last month, the Panthers had a surprise departure from the locker room when 41-year-old David Ling returned suddenly to the USA for family reasons. In an emotional interview on Panthers Radio, Ling said: “There are more important things than hockey, sometimes when you have kids and there are problems and they miss their dad". He left on a high, with four assists from five goals in the game against the Braehead Clan, then scored two goals and got an assist in Dundee the following night. He was a huge character, agitator and playmaker, with vision for passes that few other players see. My favourite Ling moment was when he skated up to an opponent’s net-minder, took a drink out of their water bottle whilst looking straight at him, then skated away laughing. He will always be remembered for his water skiing in 2013, which made international news.
After his departure Coach Corey Neilson wasted no time in strengthening the defence by bringing in two new players within 24 hours of each other. Firstly he signed 30-year-old left shot, 6’0” Canadian Franklin MacDonald, who has been playing in Austria for the last six seasons. Kevin Quick was next to join, a 27-year-old American who has NHL experience and had been playing in South Carolina this season. He has Elite League experience with Dundee in 2013. On the way out is Paul Swindlehurst, GB defenceman, who moved to the Manchester Storm on loan for the remainder of the season to ensure he gets more ice time ahead of his stint with the Sydney Ice Dogs in the summer.
In other team news, defenceman Jeff Dimmen returned to the ice after being sidelined for six weeks with an upper body injury. However, his comeback only lasted 26 minutes before he was checked to the head by Nathan McIver of the Braehead Clan and suffered a blow to the head. McIver received a one-game ban for his efforts and Dimmen is back on the bench. Shane Madolora has been retained in nets for some games, as Miika Wiikman has continued to suffer his on-off injury which is slightly concerning as he has just regained his status as the top goalie in the league, with a goals against average of 2.46 and a save percentage of 91.2, with Ben Bowns for Cardiff close on his heels with 2.48 and 91.9 respectively.
celebrating the Challenge Cup win
From February 11 to 14, the GB players from all teams across the league joined together for the Olympic Pre-Qualifiers in Cortina, with Jonathan Philips (Sheffield) as Captain and David Clarke (Nottingham) and Mark Richardson (Cardiff) named as alternates. Sam Oakford received his first call up to play for GB after Robert Farmer dropped out on medical grounds. Matches were played against the Netherlands, Serbia and finally against the hosts Italy. GB lost against Italy 2-6, which meant the Italians progress to the final qualifying stage for the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea. Steve Lee said that GB need to use the qualifiers as “a springboard for April’s World Championship in Zagreb”.
So, there are only five games left in the Elite League and the final standings will set the draw for the play-offs. The Panthers made a solid start to the campaign, dropped form in the middle around Christmas, but with a long shot, they could potentially still win three trophies this season. It is of course fantastic to be the first team to take a trophy with the Challenge Cup safely in the bag, but the League is still the most highly prized silverware. After two seasons of missing out on the play-off weekend, I expect the Panthers will also have a strong focus on qualifying to make sure they are at the season finale at the beginning of April on home ice.
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