The 16/17 Panthers season will be remembered for an outstanding win in the Continental Cup competition in Europe and Nottingham being the first team ever to bring home a European trophy.
But domestically, they finished a mediocre fourth out of ten teams in the Elite League, crashed out of the Challenge Cup competition and were eliminated in the quarter-final stage of the play-offs, for the third time in four years.
Their last eight games of the Elite League season pretty much reflected the season as a whole when results continued to be up and down. Panthers won five matches and lost three. They lost away in Belfast on consecutive nights, won three games in three nights away in Scotland, lost at home to Manchester Storm, who were sitting in ninth place in the table at the time.
We lost again at home to the Sheffield Steelers, albeit by having a goal in the last minute of the game disallowed for not crossing the line completely, despite the goal judge putting his light on.
For the final away game of the season in Manchester, Panthers won in a rather odd situation, where the ice started to melt so badly before the start of the final period, that it was deemed unsafe to continue.
The results were by then irrelevant as the rest of the league games had finished and league positions were secured. In the circumstances, the officials unusually agreed to end the game with a penalty shoot-out, instead of a regular third period.
The final league standings feed into the play-off seedings and meant that Nottingham would play arch enemies, Sheffield Steelers, in the quarter-final, which was a two-game aggregate series and chalked up the thirteenth and fourteenth games against each other this season.
It was an emotional rollercoaster of a series. Sheffield had won marginally more games than Nottingham going into the games, so were at least 60/40 favourites at the start.
However, the Panthers came out on fire in the first period of the first game and stunned Sheffield’s defence taking a 4-0 lead. The Steelers dug in and clawed it back to 5-2 by the end of the game. Panthers must have been reasonably happy to take a three goal lead into the away leg the following night.
Brian McGrattan had a bit of fun with Sheffield’s Zack Fitzgerald in the same game when the latter finally plucked up enough courage to offer McGrattan a fight, which he has hardly dared do all season. McGrattan waved him off, skated down the ice, scored, then came back to taunt the Steelers fans.
In the first period of the second game, the Panthers had lost their sparkle compared to the previous night and the Steelers scored late on, which our netminder Miika Wiikman, insisted was not a goal as the puck did not completely cross the line.
Revealingly, the local goal judge did not put his goal light on either, suggesting he agreed with Wiikman, but the referees ruled it in after a long discussion. Midway through the second period, there was a run on net, led in by Sheffield’s John Armstrong, which Sheffield have form for doing.
This time it resulted in Wiikman ending up at the bottom of a pile of bodies. The usual defensive melee followed, but amongst it all Wiikman was totally motionless face down on the ice, for at least five minutes. Eventually, the medics were on ice, as was Wiikman’s wife in tears and he was distressingly placed in a neck brace and slowly stretchered off the ice and taken to hospital. John Armstrong was ejected from the game.
Dan Green, our second back-up net minder, was then in the spotlight, having only played three games this season, as Henry Pacl has played most games after Wiikman. Steelers ran riot on the net and scored two goals in two minutes. It was rapidly even, and they took the lead in the final period for the first time in the entire series.
In the last minute, Panthers pulled Green off the ice in favour of an extra forward, and against the odds, Chris Lawrence scored a thrilling goal in the last eight seconds of the game which brought it back to level pegging and forced overtime.
Panthers had a couple of early chances on net, but Steelers Guilliame Desbiens wasted no time in rushing down the ice at the first opportunity to score the winning sudden death goal. The Nottingham blocks were left in silence, still digesting the result, while worrying what was happening with Wiikman.
Fortunately he was released from hospital that same night, was collected by the team bus en route home and was advised to rest for at least two weeks with concussion and a stiff neck, relatively fortunate, as it looked so much worse. So that was another early end to the season, with Panthers fans left with no team to support at the finals weekend, except anyone but Steelers.
The final four were Cardiff, Belfast, Sheffield and Dundee. The first semi-final was Cardiff versus Dundee and having won the league, the Challenge Cup and the conference, Cardiff were firm favourites to win.
Dundee had nothing to lose, having been the lowest qualifier and the only Scottish team at the finals, so having plenty of support around the NIC. They took an early 2-0 lead, which forced Cardiff to up their game and duly enough they came back to win 4-2.
The second game was Sheffield versus Belfast, which was expected to be a close game with a relatively split series between the two teams over the season. There were few goals and not much to cheer about for anyone not wearing orange and Sheffield won 2-0, ensuring Belfast had not secured any silverware this season.
The third versus fourth place game took place on Sunday and Belfast won 15 to Dundee’s 8 goals, in a low paced, fairly friendly and disinterested affair. The finale with Cardiff-Sheffield was anticipated to be a hotly contested game with Cardiff having had Sheffield’s number for most of the season and it was a repeat of the match-up at the Challenge Cup final, that Cardiff had won at Ice Arena Wales earlier in the season.
However, ice hockey rarely follows expectations and despite being 3-1 up at the end of the first period, Cardiff lost their way in the second period and Sheffield soon had it back to 3-all, then went 4-3 up. Goals for both in the third took the score to 5-all and stalemate.
The rules for the play-off final were no penalty shoot-out, so the teams had to keep playing twenty-minute periods until a sudden death goal decided it. Both teams were patient and had great chances, but there was no goal in the fourth period.
The fifth was nearing the end, and true to Cardiff’s play off form (in the final five times in recent years and have never won) combined with Sheffield’s must-win attitude and unnerving clinical ability to finish, the winner came from the Yorkshire side. Levi Nelson scored with five minutes left of the second overtime period, giving them a 6-5 win and ensuring that Cardiff did not win a grand slam of trophies.
The final results for 16-17 were:
|Gardiner Conference:||Braehead Clan|
Panthers held their own awards night, although arguably there was not much to celebrate, except Farmer and Wiikman. Winners were:
|GMB Player of the Year||Alex Nikiforuk|
|Top Goals Scorer||Chris Lawrence (47th in the League)|
|Most Consistent Player of the Season||Erik Lindhagen/Andy Sertich|
|Most Entertaining Player||Alex Nikiforuk|
|Top Points Scorer||Stephen Schultz (36th in the League)|
|The Gary Rippingale Trophy (Team Spirit)||Alex Nikiforuk|
|British Player of the Year||Robert Farmer|
|Players' Player of the Year||Brad Moran|
|Fans Player of the Year||Robert Farmer|
|Most Valuable Player||Miika Wiikman|
Corey Neilson looks to be returning next season as he signed a multi-year deal. Other returners will be Jeff Brown, Dan Spang, Brian McGrattan and likely some, if not all of the British players, but Robert Farmer should be a priority as he had an excellent year. Neilson has stated that he was disappointed with this team and the players he wants for next season will be “younger and hungrier”, who will hopefully provide better contention for the prized Elite League trophy.
To stave off the post-season blues for a little longer, there is a friendly GB Poland international game at the NIC on 14 April. This comes in advance of the World Championships Division 1, which will be hosted by Ice Hockey UK for the first time in 25 years at The SSE Arena, Belfast. Competitors are GB, Japan, Netherlands, Estonia, Croatia and Lithuania during the tournament which runs from Sunday 23 April until Saturday 29 April 2017. Four Panthers players have been named in the squad: David Clarke, Steve Lee, Robert Lachowicz and Robert Farmer.
Pre-season games will begin mid-August and the Champions’ Hockey League matches start towards the end of August.
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