The Panthers have made a promising and positive start to the season. They have already made history again, twice. Firstly by being the first ever UK team to win an away game in the European Champions Hockey League (CHL) and secondly for being the first UK team to win more than one game in the highly regarded CHL competition.
One of the hardest things as a coach must be engendering team spirit and a good atmosphere in the locker room. It's obviously early days, but from what we have seen so far on the ice, Corey Neilson seems to have made a fantastic start on pulling together a young team of talented individuals who are already showing passion about protecting each other, working well as a unit and showing enthusiasm on the ice.
Neilson was still adding to the roster in August and his last two players were absolute star quality:
Brett Perlini, 6'2", 27 was brought up in Guildford and has joint Canadian/British citizenship, previously playing for the NHL Anaheim Ducks and in the ECHL. He comes from a hockey family as his father, Fred Perlini played for Nottingham in 1986-87. His brother Brendan was amongst the top picks in the 2014 NHL draft and his uncle, Kevin Conway played for several top UK teams between 1985 and 2007. Brett has also previously played with Robert Farmer, Robert Lachowicz and Steve Lee.
Yann Sauvé, 6'3", 27, Canadian defenceman, has played in the NHL, ECHL and AHL. Last season, he started in the Russian KHL league at Zagreb but faced a life threatening battle with testicular cancer mid-season. He returned to the ice in February and after a brief spell with a former ECHL team, he joined Munich for the German play-offs, which they went on to win.
Of the new team, outstanding players so far are Alexander Mokshantsev, young Russian, who was supposedly playing our fourth line, but he is getting plenty of ice time and scoring speedy goals like the one above, which was featured in the CHL goals of the week. Josh Shalla, Canadian goal scorer is also living up to expectations as he picked up top goal scorer in the CHL.
Michael Garnett, new netminder, had big skates to fill following Miika Wiikman in nets for the last two years and Craig Kowalski for five years prior to that. At 34, Garnett is one of the oldest players on the team (Dan Spang is 34 and David Clarke 36). He seems to have won the fans over already, with them singing his name to the same song as was previously used for Wiikman. He seems calm and solid in net and could provide solid leadership in the locker room. Helpfully, Garnett is also apparently translating for Mokhantshev who only has limited English, as Garnett previously played in Russia.
Unpredictable as ever, there have been further changes to the team already. Our expected second netminder, Eduard Zakharchenko from the Ukraine has not arrived and has been removed from the roster on the Panthers website without comment. It was announced by the ice hockey Federation of Ukraine that he and one other player were suspected of being involved in match-fixing in a championship game against South Korea and may face a ban and/or fine, but information is limited.
Miika Wiikman, last season's top netminder, has moved to Milton Keynes Lightning, one of the new teams in the league, on a temporary basis to provide injury cover. Defenceman Mathieu Brisebois has not been seen much; since playing an early CHL game, and has had exploratory tests. He could be this season's first injury.
The Panthers started their pre-season by playing in the Aladdin Cup which was between Nottingham, Cardiff and the Braehead Clan. It was a round robin competition and Cardiff, last season's league winners, had no problem in securing the win, an incomplete Panthers team at that stage, going down to them home and away. Panthers beat Clan 4-2 at the NIC in their first encounter of the season, meaning Nottingham finished second and Clan third.
This was followed by an exhibition match against the Krefeld Pinguines from the German DEL league on 19 August. No one seemed to have told the teams it was a "friendly" and it was a physical and exciting game. Mathieu Gagnon was in a fight after only 90 seconds of the game, starting after he was hit against the boards. Evan Mosey showed he still has speed on his side and scored a short-handed goal. With only a minute left in the game, Clarke passed to Sauvé who score the equalising goal to push the game to sudden death overtime. Sauvé then finished the game off in overtime by scoring the final winner.
Panthers then embarked on a trip to Europe for their first two away games in the CHL. They played SC Bern in Switzerland and held the game to a respectable score line of 2-5 (compared to Cardiff's away loss to their Swiss opponent Davos 1-10). Next up was HK Mountfield in the Czech Republic. Josh Shalla opened the scoring after 13 minutes with a powerplay goal. Dan Spang scored the second goal and Nottingham had to defend numerous power plays. No UK team had ever won an away game in the CHL but Nottingham eventually held on and boasted a 4-2 victory. The return fixture with HK Mountfield at home was equally well played by Nottingham, who won again, this time 4-3.
The even bigger shock came when SC Bern played at the NIC. They were full of confidence and swagger, expecting an easy win, seeded 4 to Nottingham's 32 (out of 32 teams). Their players flew in via a private jet and were accompanied by around 500 loud fans, who were escorted closer than usual by Arena staff and police and generally preferred not wearing any shirts. Bern took the lead as expected, but Panthers had a fantastic second period and Alex Mokshantsev scored a power play goal. Mokshantsev scored again to take it to 2-2 at the end of the second period. Jeff Brown scored early in the third and Robert Lachowicz finished it off with an empty net goal, as he's becoming an expert in doing, and quietened the Swiss fans who were in shock.
That win puts the Panthers two points clear of Bern at the top of the group after four matches. Corey Neilson admitted to being "shocked" and went onto praise his new team: "I love this hockey team. They work so hard, they give everything they have, they play with a lot of speed. What we did tonight is pretty special, not just for the Nottingham Panthers, but also the Elite League."
There are two more games to play against Finnish side Turku, one home on October 3 and one away on October 10.
In more familiar territory, the Elite League started on September 9 with a home game at the NIC against the Coventry Blaze who have had a clear out of players from last season, including character goalie Brian Stewart (now playing for Guildford Flames, new team to the EIHL). The Blaze appear to have come back stronger and it was a tight game. Panthers edged a win 4-3 and it was good to see a variety of scorers, with Derlago, Perlini and Billingsley all getting on the score board.
In the Challenge Cup, our first opponents were old enemies the Sheffield Steelers. Regrettably for them, the Steelers have not had the best start to their pre-season picking up multiple injuries and losing 2-8 to Coventry. The first time Panthers visited the Sheffield Arena this season they took an assured 3-0 lead in the first ten minutes. As ever, the Steelers fought back up and every time Nottingham scored, Sheffield had to do the same. Nottingham looked the stronger team, keeping the lead for the whole match, but Sheffield snatched a sickening late winner in literally the last second of the game, to take the first scalp of season with the local rivalry.
But overall a solid start from the Panthers. The fixtures will start to come thick and fast now and it remains to be seen how they manage to maintain their enthusiasm, match fitness and the star quality and skill on ice with multiple demands, and only time will tell.