It all feels a bit too relaxed for Panthers at the moment, considering the time of year. We are usually struggling with a heavy schedule, in the final of the Challenge Cup and fighting for the last few vital league points. This year we were knocked out of the Cup in the semi-finals and we are mathematically out of the title race, with another disappointing mid-table finish on the cards.
Realistically, we were out of the league title race in October and November when we came back from qualifying rounds for the Continental Cup in Europe and our league form collapsed each time. In October, on return from Jaca, we lost six out of six consecutive games. In November, after returning from Odense, we lost four out of six league games. After winning the Continental Cup in Italy, which was a great achievement, on our return we lost eight out of nine league games immediately afterwards.
Admittedly, our trophy cabinet is now the first in the UK to contain a European Continental Cup, but unfortunately most fans did not have the pleasure of seeing the team win it, as it was all played abroad. The night that was set aside to bring the trophy home to the fans for a celebration was directly after a loss to the Belfast Giants, so the party all felt a bit hollow. We are now left with the mildly entertaining sport of putting dents in other team’s league title hopes, as we still have games to play against Belfast and Sheffield, who are both above us in the league.
The only thing really left to play for this season if we want more silverware is the play-off trophy. It is the easiest tournament that a team can win, with the shortest number of games, only four needed to win a trophy, which include a two-legged quarter final, a knock-out semi and a final in Nottingham at the NIC in April. Coach Corey Neilson gave the team three days off this week and hopes to have better news soon from the locker room on the never-ending injuries. He has said that the team needs to go “back to basics”. The run-in looks dangerous, as the league standings feed into the seedings for the play-offs. As it stands, we are most likely to play Sheffield or Belfast in the quarter finals.
Panthers have won four and lost seven games to the Steelers this season in Cup and League competitions, winning away in Sheffield only once, and with one more home game left to play. Panthers have only won one game out of six against Belfast so far this season, which was in Nottingham. They have two more games to play this weekend, away in Belfast. The Giants will want the win for league points as they are the only team that could potentially still catch league leaders Cardiff, albeit the Welsh side would need to have an extremely bad run of results too, for that to happen. Panthers will just want to practice their game play and come up with a strategy on how to beat Belfast and also to build momentum and get back into a winning mentality for the play-offs.
We have hardly had a full roster this season and when we do, the results can be drastically different. On the injured list for this month has been Jason Williams, who was a big loss as he was scoring at least a goal a game when he played. Logan MacMillan, who is a solid all-rounder, has been out for weeks. Jeff Dimmen had his fingers broken by a slash courtesy of a Cardiff player. Additionally, Robert Farmer picked up a five-game ban due to a moment of madness. He reacted to a Belfast player kicking his leg before a face-off. Farmer took objection, turned round and instantly cross checked the player for his pains. Accidental or otherwise it was to the head and hit Greg Rutherford clean on the nose, breaking it and laying him out on the ice in a pool of blood. Farmer, who was escorted off the ice, has been one of our best players all season until now.
The Panthers did sign a new player late on to bring some legs back to the team. Deivids Sarkanis is a 22-year-old Latvian that has played for his country and most recently in Austria. He has also played in France and has games in the KHL too. He had previously played in Nottingham, but against us, when he was with Riga in the Continental Cup three years ago. Corey Neilson said: “He’s young and ambitious and he’s fast”.
All of the three stronger teams above us have had the luxury of having a “healthy scratch” where they can choose which player to leave off their roster for any given game. The last time we had that in 2012/13, we won the grand slam of ice hockey, winning the league, Cup and play-offs in the same year, which is incredibly hard to do and has not been replicated in recent years prior to that, nor since. At a recent Q&A session for fans held by Neil Black, the Panthers owner, a strength and conditioning coach was discussed, which we have also not had since the winning season, and for all of those seasons in between, the team has suffered constant injuries. The sooner the decision is made to bring a conditioning coach back, the better.
Panthers were knocked out of the Challenge Cup in the semi final stage, by arch-enemies, Sheffield Steelers. Panthers have won the Cup for six out of the last seven years. They lost the first leg of the semi final at home 1-2, missing four regular goal-scorers due to injury. The second leg was played on Valentine’s Day in Sheffield and Panthers failed to score a single goal, losing 0-3, so 1-5 on aggregate. The final was played in Cardiff on March 5 between Sheffield and Cardiff. It was a tight game between two of the most skilled teams in the league. Cardiff had home advantage and simply were the better team on the night, taking the win 3-2 and looking like league leaders in waiting.
Nottingham only have eight league games left to play, of which six are on the road. We head off to Belfast this weekend for games on Friday and Sunday. They will then play three games in three nights in Scotland against Dundee and then Edinburgh twice. The Braehead Clan have won their half of the conference and will be seeded second in the play-off draw.
After a disappointing league season, the team seems committed to make the finals weekend, but it will be an uphill battle to get past Belfast or Sheffield. In recent years, we have either completely failed to qualify for the final weekend or won the whole thing, so it will be an interesting one to watch. The play offs are on April 8/9 and held 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 great atmosphere and quality ice hockey.
Nottingham Panthers website