Left Panther: February

8 February 17 words: Sally Utton

The Nottingham Panthers returned from Europe as Continental Cup Champions, a fantastic achievement as the first UK team ever to do so. But it feels like history is repeating itself, as their well-earned success is once again followed by a slump back at home in the Elite League...

Team goal celebration. photo: Andy Burnham

The Panthers headed off to a cold and snowy Ritten in Italy from Friday 13 – Sunday 15 January for the Continental Cup. Nottingham were the lowest ranked team in the finals and played three teams in three days; a team from Denmark on Friday, Kazakhstan on Saturday and finally the Italian hosts on Sunday. Captain Brad Moran scored both goals against Denmark, with Miika Wiikman posting a shutout and final score of 2-0. The game against Kazakhstan was tighter and ended up 3-2 on penalties, with Chris Lawrence show-boating a cheeky hands-on-hips goal celebration to the delighted fans.

Alex Nikiforuk showed great commitment when he was suddenly called home to be with his wife who went into labour with his first child whilst he was travelling. He watched the birth over Skype, met his baby son Knox, before returning to Italy to be back with the team to play in the final on Sunday. Panthers took the lead in the final game against Italy, needing a win in regulation or overtime. Robert Farmer, GB international, scored twice, including the final empty net goal to secure the game and tournament with a convincing 4-1.

As the winners of the Continental Cup, the Panthers have now secured a place in next season's Champions Hockey League, which is Europe's highest competition. The trophy (actually a tray!) was paraded around the Nottingham Forest Ground by the team who were welcomed to a recent match. The win has attracted written congratulations from the Prime Minister and the Sports Minister for raising the profile and helping to grow British ice hockey. There is a Civic Reception in the Council House this week and a banner on the Council House congratulating the champions.

However, since returning from Europe and much celebration, the rollercoaster has tipped over the edge and on the way down the Panthers have lost six out of their last seven games. The same happened when they returned from Europe last time, when they lost six consecutive league games.

The Challenge Cup first leg on Wednesday 25 January was one of these losses, against the Sheffield Steelers. It is a two-legged semi-final with aggregate score. We lost 1-2 at home, sorely missing four of our regular goal scorers due to injury. Nottingham have won the Challenge Cup for six of the last seven years, but Sheffield now have to be the favourites to progress to the final on current form (Steelers winning seven out of ten).

The second leg is on Valentine’s Day in Sheffield, giving them home advantage, but there will be no love lost on the ice, despite the date, between the arch enemies. Nottingham are a Cup team and can never be written off. The other semifinal is between Belfast and Cardiff with Belfast taking a one-goal lead going into their second leg at home on Wednesday 8 February. The final will be held in Cardiff on Sunday 5 March.

Cardiff fight. photo: Andy Burnham

Nottingham now stand at a rather mediocre fourth place in the Elite League, some seventeen points behind the league leaders Cardiff, with only two games in hand. Belfast are hot on Cardiff’s tail, only one point behind. Sheffield are third, eight points behind Cardiff and eleven points clear of Nottingham. It seems to be a three-horse race going into the business end of the season. While it’s unlikely that Nottingham can now win, or even finish in the top three, they have to play all of the teams above them, so will have a say in who finishes where.

Of the three teams above them, Panthers have the best record against Cardiff having a marginal majority, with four wins out of seven games they have played. Belfast are proving the most difficult to beat, with only one win out of five played. Sheffield are ahead with five wins out of eight games over us. Mid-table teams such as Fife and the Braehead Clan are also quite able to overtake Panthers, as they are only a few points behind. Goal scoring is a clear issue for Nottingham as their highest scorer is only 29th in the league’s top scorer table. The Braehead Clan have the top three scorers in the league on their books and have just picked up a new defenceman to see them through to the end of the season.

The ongoing injury list continues with Jason Williams, who was brought in for injury cover, joining the bench himself. Chris Lawrence is still out with an unspecified injury (the Panthers website only states that he was hit by a puck during a game). Jeff Dimmen has a broken finger after being visibly slashed on the hand by a Cardiff player this weekend. Despite Dimmen pointedly showing the referee his injury, Cardiff were not even penalised for it during the game.

Dimmen. photo: Andy Burnham

David Clarke, Geoff Waugh and Stephen Schultz have all returned from injury and Clarke immediately returned to form, scoring two goals in his first two games back on the ice. Robert Lachowicz achieved his 100th ever career goal on Saturday against Cardiff at home. The one recent win against Coventry was an exhilarating goal fest with Nottingham scoring eight of the eleven goals in the match, an achievement indeed against Coventry’s usually excellent net-minder Brian Stewart, who left the ice in disgust partway through the game.

There are only sixteen league games left to play, with a long stretch of away games on the road in March. Panthers will leave themselves with a difficult task to make the playoff final weekend by finishing mid table, as they could face a quarter final of fourth versus fifth place. Since winning the league in 2013, they have finished mid table for three consecutive years, fourth twice, and fifth last season. Arguably, as a result, they have not made the playoffs for two out of the last three years. As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. 

The playoffs are the season finale on Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 April, at the National Ice Centre, where fans from all over the country attend to see the final four teams play in a knock out tournament with a thrilling atmosphere. While it’s always a fun weekend, it’s always better if the home team are there to support.

Follow Sally on Twitter: @sautton22

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