It's a good time to be a Nottingham Panthers fan. Nearly a third of the way through the season and we are sitting pretty at the top of the league. Panthers have won 11 out of 12 of their last domestic games. We have qualified for the Challenge Cup quarter finals and set multiple records for progressing to the furthest stage ever for a UK team in the European Champions Hockey League (CHL).
In the CHL, Panthers progressed to the last sixteen teams to face top Swiss team, the Zurich Lions. The Lions are one of the best teams in Europe, with a multi-million pound roster, including Olympic players and 1,643 NHL games' experience, compared to Panthers' 32 games. The salary of one Zurich player equates to the whole Nottingham roster.
Nottingham were the first ever UK team to win a game in the CHL when they beat Hamburg in the group stages of the competition in 2014-15. Their journey to this season's knockout stages was a demonstration of battling against the odds. Panthers were seeded bottom of 32 teams, but went on to win four of their six group games. This included a win over the tournament's fourth seeds Bern, and a shutout against Finnish side TPS Turku. Coach Corey Neilson said: "Our performances in the CHL have been absolutely outstanding".
Unusually for ice hockey, the Panthers fairytale story attracted the attention of the national press. The home and away games were streamed live on the BBC Sport website, commentated by BBC Radio Five Live and reported at relative length by East Midlands Today. Against the Lions, Panthers lost the first leg 3-1 in Switzerland, firing only two shots on goal in the first period. They picked it up in the second period and matched the Lions play and equalised. Late in the third period, two good goals by Zurich concluded the match, but the game felt closer than a two-goal game. The home leg on Tuesday November 7th was a record sell-out for a mid-week game. The 7,000 strong home crowd were vocal in their support and attempted to be an extra man on the ice for the Panthers. However, Zurich were simply too strong and came out with a 3-0 win, giving an overall convincing aggregate score of 6-1 to the Lions. The home team received a standing ovation for their performance, regardless of the result and leave the competition with heads held high and having firmly stamped UK ice hockey's reputation on the map.
Back home, there were some domestic issues with the Elite League Department of Player Safety (DOPS) that attracted unwanted attention. The current DOPS Committee reviewed the incident below involving Sheffield's Colton Fretter and Belfast's Spiro Goulakos.
Fretter was initially issued with a one-game ban, which attracted embarrassing headlines in the UK, even extending to North America with EPSN commenting on its leniency. The implication for all clubs and players in the league was a huge concern. The Elite League promptly hired a former NHL linesman, Lyle Seitz, along with members of the IIHF Player Safety Committee to review the incident again, which was increased to a six-game ban for Fretter, as he showed "a wilful negligent act of intent to cause injury." Goulakis was initially given a three game ban for kicking, which was subsequently reduced to a two-game ban as the panel felt his kick at Fretter was "not intentional, but rather in self-defence." Simon Kirkham, the EIHL head of referees, was removed as the head of DOPS with immediate effect. The incident raised concerns about the validity of the existing system and the League has now retained the independent board as a permanent feature and committed to implementing a four-man on-ice refereeing system (instead of three) from January 2018, duplicating other international leagues.
So back to league action for Panthers and we are top of the league, ahead of the nearest contender, Manchester Storm, by two clear points and with two games in hand. Corey Neilson says that after playing catch-up over the last few seasons, it is a good feeling to lead the league, even if it is early days: "It's been pretty nice to get out in front instead of chasing all the time. It does feel good. Everyone else can look at what they need to catch you. We're just winning games and that's our sole focus. I like being out in front."
It has to be reflective of an all-round team effort as not one Nottingham player is anywhere near the top ten for points, goals or assists. The highest is Brett Perlini in 16th place with 18 points, nine goals and nine assists. All players are scoring and any line is capable of scoring goals against any team.
Panthers have only lost three times in the league this season, and two of those were by seventh placed Cardiff, who just sustained three losses in three games last weekend. Other big arena teams have also endured consecutive game-losing streaks, Belfast (11, 12, 15 Nov) and Sheffield (23, 24 Sep) and their games won out of number of games played percentage are a disappointing 57 and 52 respectively. Fife have the second best games won out of number of games played at 65%, with Nottingham steaming ahead at 81%.
There are times when Panthers do not even seem to be playing to their full potential yet either. Just this weekend against Cardiff, the Devils took the lead twice and it was 3-all, with only 20 minutes to go. However, Panthers have a habit of wearing teams down and this team simply does not give up. They pulled away to extend a lead and won the game 7-4, including two empty-net goals. Speaking of not giving up, Nottingham have won the most games in sudden death overtime or on penalty shots, of any team in the league. They have won six games by going down to the wire. The team clearly have grit and determination when the pressure is on and that will surely do them well in big games and at the business end of the season.
On October 28th, with fans in Halloween dress, Nottingham welcomed a new team to the NIC for the first time, the Milton Keynes Lightning. However, they were no ghostly strangers, as their team is made up of many familiar ex-Panther faces including Ashley Tait, Jonathan Boxill, Guilliame Doucet and Miika Wiikman. Nottingham fans gave former goalie Miika Wiikman a whole-hearted welcome and farewell. With seven goals in the game, including a slick one from Alexander Mokshantsev, one from Dan Spang, two from birthday boy Zack Phillips, a fight between Mathieu Gagnon and Matt Nickerson and another tense overtime win 4-3, it was a great spectacle.
Domestic issues have recently affected both Corey Neilson and Mark Derlago who returned to Canada on compassionate leave, Neilson for the funeral of his father and Derlago to visit his seriously ill father. Assistant Coach, Rick Strachan and David Clarke were at the helm on November 4th versus Guildford Flames at home and away on November 5th against the Milton Keynes Lightning. Despite both joining the league this season, both teams are stiff competition. Panthers secured back-to-back wins as they beat Guildford 2-1 in overtime. Patrick Galbraith was in goal and had a great game. A win in Milton Keynes on the following night meant that Panthers were the first team to win in Planet Ice in the league this season. They won 5-3 in a close game which was sealed with an empty-net goal. Rick Strachan praised the team and was "proud" of the players' efforts after a hectic schedule.
The only disappointing performance to date was a loss to Cardiff on Oct 22nd in Wales, which is a tough rink to play in at the best of times. Cardiff are the current League and Cup champions from last season, a solid team and the Nottingham/Cardiff games are usually competitive to watch. Neilson wrote the 2-6 loss off as a night to forget, saying players "never got their legs going and looked like they were all carrying cows on their backs." Cardiff and Nottingham are current joint Erhardt Conference leaders with Nottingham having a game in hand. Sheffield cannot seem to consistently beat teams in their own conference, having only secured two wins out of seven of their games played.
In the Challenge Cup, twelve teams will reduce to eight for the quarter finals. Panthers have played five of their six games and have already qualified, so the last game against Manchester on November 25th will be a dead rubber for Nottingham. Storm can still overtake the Braehead Clan to secure the last place in the group, so they will be motivated to go for the win. Sheffield have finished top of their group and will be seeded first in the quarter finals.
In an unusual move, particularly considering that we are mid-competition, the League announced a change to the format of deciding the match-ups of the quarter finals. The first seed will choose who they want to play from seeds four to eight. Second and third seeds can do likewise and the fourth team will play the remaining team. Elite League Chairman, Tony Smith (also owner of the Sheffield Steelers) said "We wanted to find a way to make the group stages of the Challenge Cup as meaningful as possible and to reward the group winners. This change will do that, whilst also adding an extra element to the competition. Those top-seeded teams will really need to think about who they want to face in the quarter-finals, who they think they will match up well against. Equally those teams chosen as the opponents won't want to be seen as some kind of "weak link" - it will give them an extra point to prove as they look to progress in the competition themselves."
The draw will be done on November 28th at the next Elite League meeting. The Challenge Cup Final will take place at Ice Arena Wales on Sunday March 4th 2018.