photos: Andy Burnham
The Nottingham Panthers have found an impressive game winning run of form early on this season. They have won nine out of ten matches in the last four weeks, compared to five in ten in the previous month. However, for the first time this season, the Panthers are not top of the Elite League table and there are a few teams that are hot on their tails.
Cardiff are newly sitting in first place with 15 points from nine games, Nottingham are second with 13 points from 8 games and Sheffield are third with ten points from only six games. The Steelers could overtake Nottingham by one point if they win both their games in hand.
The one loss for the Panthers unfortunately came at home on October 16 against the Belfast Giants and ended a six game winning streak. It was a tight game with Belfast taking the lead. Nottingham scored a beautiful goal to equalise when Captain Brad Moran fired the puck in deep from the blue line and Matt Carter got a tip in to re-direct it to the net. The game went to sudden death overtime after 60 minutes of play with the score stuck at one all. Despite Panthers dominating the play in overtime, it was the Giants that sneaked the sudden death goal to win the game and take two points. Coach Corey Neilson described the game as a “poor performance”, with players “not moving their feet” but an “atypical performance”.
The Manchester Storm came to the NIC on October 1, which was one of the most exciting games so far this season, with 13 goals, the first fight for Panthers’ new enforcer Brian McGrattan and a thrilling win, which counted for both League and Challenge Cup points. Geoff Waugh opened the scoring after only four minutes. Manchester tough guy Eric Neilson, brave but rather unwisely, challenged Brian McGrattan to a fight, which McGrattan seemed reluctant to be drawn in, but won comfortably and admitted afterwards it was his first scrap in seven months.
Chris Lawrence had a fantastic game and scored four goals for Nottingham. However, as quickly as Panthers scored Storm kept scoring as well, to keep within a goal or two. Ex-Panther Paul Swindlehurst scored two against his previous team. Eventually Panthers were the most dogged on the night and eventually stretched out a three goal lead, which secured an 8-5 final score.
Nottingham are already safely through to this season's Challenge Cup quarter-finals as cannot mathematically be overtaken by the other teams in the round-robin section. Back up net-minder Henry Pacl has been in nets for many of the Cup games and he has clearly been delighted with his wins, celebrating in style.
Panthers were glad to get quick-fire revenge over arch-enemies Sheffield Steelers on September 24, as Steelers had claimed the bragging rights for the first clash of the season the week before. Panthers wasted no time in fighting back on the second match up with a victory to please a packed crowd at the NIC. The debut of Brian McGrattan not surprisingly opened up far more space on ice than a week earlier in Yorkshire, allowing forwards Chris Lawrence and David Clarke to kick off the scoring. Panthers opened up a two goal lead in the second period. Dan Spang fed Alex Nikiforuk a great pass in front of goal to pick his spot and score. Chris Lawrence slipped out in front to restore the two goal cushion only for Sheffield to do the same, but the score ended up at 4-3 in favour of Nottingham.
Corey Neilson has said his team needed to find a way to win despite injuries and sure enough, as in former seasons, they are hitting the team already. David Clarke has been sidelined for two weeks, Steve Lee for four weeks, only just returning back in time to play the Continental Cup. Particularly badly timed, Chris Lawrence was injured in Cardiff at his goal scoring prime with 5 in two games, and has been out for two weeks so far which is ongoing. Stephen Schultz took a check behind the goal which seemed to injure his lower leg as he hobbled off very slowly, slamming his stick on the bench as he went, with no mention of him returning in the near future.
Perhaps in view of all the mounting injuries, Neilson promptly signed 29-year-old Czech international and former Boston Bruin Petr Kalus who played for Panthers in 2013/14. Kalus has also played with the Minnesota Wild in the NHL, several clubs in the AHL, has experience in the KHL, plus the top clubs in Sweden, Italy, France, and Denmark. Corey said: “We’ve got some guys out hurt at the moment and Petr fits the bill. We know him, he knows us and he can’t wait to get back to Nottingham.” Kalus marked his return with the game-winning penalty shot in the round-robin section of the Challenge Cup game v Manchester. He seems to be enjoying his surroundings at the end of the Panthers Dundee highlights:
Sam Oakford has left the team. He made his senior GB debut last season and opted to take the opportunity to train as a teacher and has dropped down to the English Premier League to play for the Telford Tigers, which reputedly fits better with his schedule.
The Panthers were involved in overseas action this weekend, representing the Elite League in the IIHF Continental Cup in Jaca, Spain. They successfully progressed to the third round after coming through Group B unbeaten with some phenomenal score lines. The toughest match was the third in three days versus Latvian side HK Liepãja, who had also won both their matches. The Panthers dug deep to hold firm and win 3-1. Previously, they thumped hosts Jaca, Spain 13-2 and Zeytinburnu Belediyespor from Istanbul, Turkey, 12-1. The Panthers Coach was clearly pleased with a return to his renowned coaching style “sexy Neilson hockey” when he claimed, "If that's not sexy I don't know what is. I really liked what I saw from special teams. We got that (third goal) and in the third period we shut it down."
Next up is a trip to Odense in Denmark on 18-20 November in the following round, where Panthers will face the Odense Bulldogs, French side Angers and HC Donbass of Ukraine and the top two teams progress to the final round. If the Panthers do advance, they will need to re-schedule a home match in the Elite League. The weekend in Denmark was already clear of fixtures, which could give an indication of expectation levels.
Also on the international stage, Great Britain are playing Olympic qualifiers Norway in back-to-back games in Nottingham on November 1 and Cardiff on November 2. It will be a huge challenge with GB ranked 24th in the world and Norway 11th. Five Nottingham Panther players are delighted to have been selected for the team; Ollie Betteridge for the first time, Robert Lachowicz, Robert Farmer and David Clarke.
Follow Sally on Twitter: @sautton22