New Year, new leaf. The Nottingham Panthers have had a welcome upturn in form over the festive period. They have joyfully claimed 16 out of 18 points in their last nine games, not losing a single game in regulation since December 17th. They have moved to fourth place in the Elite League table, now within one point of the Sheffield Steelers, although the latter have two games in hand. Cardiff are still sitting aloft at the top, with Belfast drawing closer, now only five points behind and waiting for the Devils to slip up.
Next weekend, January 13-15, the Panthers head off to Ritten in Italy to represent the UK in the European tournament, the Continental Cup. If they win, they will be the first ever British team to do so. The highest finish to date is the Sheffield Steelers, who finished third in 2009/10. Against their usual practice, the Panthers are showing a live webcast of their games, which is a trait that would more than please the fans if it were to continue at home for league action, albeit unlikely. The European games are scheduled for: Friday, 3pm versus Denmark; Saturday 2pm versus Kazakhstan and Sunday 6pm versus Italy.
With ongoing injuries, Panthers have added new blood, bringing top class to their roster by signing Canadian Jason Williams. He is an ex-NHL player and won the sport’s most prized trophy, the Stanley Cup, with the Detroit Red Wings in 2012. The 36-year-old forward boasts 455 games in the NHL and 321 games at AHL level. He has also played at top level in Germany and Switzerland. He was injured last season, but has more than proved his quality since his arrival in Nottingham, scoring both game winning goals in his first two matches.
Williams was awarded EIHL Player of the Break for scoring four goals and accruing seven points in five games. He joined at a busy time for the team, playing in front of over 15,000 fans during the traditional double-header of Nottingham-Sheffield matches on Boxing Day and December 27. The Boxing Day game in Sheffield was important for Head Coach Corey Neilson to re-establish some control after losing heavily in the last two games at the house of Steel (8-1 and 6-1) and a record sell out orange crowd of over 9,000 fans. The Panthers were having none of it this time, and gave a thoroughly dominating team performance, with the final score-line of 3-2 flattering the losing Steelers. Even their frustrated coach Paul Thompson stated that his team had “not showed up” on the big stage.
History happily repeated itself in Nottingham on the next night with the same score-line, again in the Panthers favour, but a more competitive game. Sheffield’s Mathieu Roy slashed our net-minder Miika Wiikman after the whistle had gone, which Wiikman took objection to and reacted. Roy was given a penalty for his pains and Steelers Coach Thompson’s showed his obvious frustration on the team bench. The penalty call gave the Panthers a 5-on-3 player advantage, which Stephen Schultz wasted no time in finishing off and scoring, much to the NIC’s delight.
As if we have not had enough of the local derby, Nottingham have also set up a semi-final against Sheffield in the Challenge Cup. We beat the Braehead Clan 3-1 in the second leg of the quarter finals to progress with a 6-4 aggregate win overall. The first game is on 25 January in Nottingham and the second away leg is on February 14 in Sheffield. The other semi-finalists are Belfast and Cardiff. The final will be held in Cardiff on March 5. Panthers have won the Challenge Cup for six out of the last seven years and will be looking to hold on to the title again.
Still on the long term injured list are David Clarke and Geoff Waugh. Stephen Schultz took another knock in the Clan game this weekend and did not ice in Coventry the following day. Jeff Dimmen has returned back to the defence line-up after missing 13 games with injury. Robert Farmer has shown some excellent form recently, delivering two game winning goals this season and always showing absolute commitment and enthusiasm on the ice. He took hits to the helmet, knee and ankle in the latest home game versus the Braehead Clan, but was still on the ice at the end to score the final goal.
Stephen Schultz was awarded the Elite League Player of the Week mid-December. The American played a key part in Panthers convincing 8-0 win against the league leaders away at Ice Arena Wales in Cardiff, where he scored two goals and also an assist. Schultz followed that up the next day, with another goal and an assist against Coventry and also scored in the penalty shootout as Panthers completed a four point weekend. Schultz also assisted with the opening two goals of the Challenge Cup quarter-final against the Braehead Clan.
Mid December, defenceman Kristian Kudroc left the team suddenly only a month after coming to Nottingham. The club announced that he was forced to return home because of “serious family issues”.
So, off to Europe we go on an adventure to try and bring back a European Cup that has never been in the UK before. Waiting for us when we get back is a return to the Elite League title race that is tight and does not really allow scope for any further losses, plus two mid week Challenge Cup games, in addition to regular weekend fixtures. The Panthers train rolls on.
Odense v Panthers, Friday 13 January, 3pm. Ticket Hotline - 0843 373 3000
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