How things can change in the space of one festive month. Sitting pretty at the top is a fond memory as Panthers spectacularly crashed and burned in December. Eight consecutive losses, and more since, bounced us down to seventh out of twelve in the league, second bottom of our conference (to Sheffield) and with supposedly the most expensive roster ever, where did it all go wrong?
Panthers have a tradition of slumping in form at Christmas, but this year it started way too early. November 26 marked the first unexpected loss, against the Fife Flyers, who have proved they cannot be written off. Panthers were up 4-1 and until the Scots staged a comeback to push the game to overtime. Nottingham had previously won numerous games in overtime by relying on their skilled players three on three with more space on the ice. Luck ran out this time and they lost 4-5 to an early soft goal by Fife.
Nottingham took on Sheffield on December 2 and took a satisfying 4-1 win over their arch enemies. Steelers took the lead, but we came back to beat them, rubbing salt in the wound with a late empty-net goal. Neilson described it as “our most complete performance of the domestic season.” The game was only marred by Evan Mosey heading to hospital for a check up on an injury he sustained in the first period. The next night we were away in Scotland and took a comfortable 3-0 win over the Braehead Clan, with Patrick Galbraith securing his first shutout of the season, saving 43 shots. He was awarded EIHL Player of the Week for that week. At this point, Galbraith had won all seven games he played in the league so far and led all Elite League goaltenders in both save percentage (.948) and goals-against average (1.85) at the time.
December 9 and 10th gave up the first zero point weekend in the month, Nottingham losing at home to the Cardiff Devils in a tight game 1-2 with a frantic last ten minutes where they looked like equalizing. The next night, away to Guildford, new team in the league, we lost 2-5. Galbraith was injured with five minutes to go and did not return until December 30.
Over the next 12 days we lost to Manchester, Belfast, Milton Keynes (Cup), Manchester again and twice to Sheffield in the most humiliating way possible, 0-4 away and 0-5 at home in front of a sold-out NIC. The ability to score goals seemed to have completely deserted the team and in eight games, Nottingham scored only eight goals – while conceding 24.
After the games against Sheffield, Boxing Day away and the next day at home, Corey Neilson stated he had tears in his eyes, probably along with many equally disappointed fans. Neilson stated that the team performance took an emotional toll on him and he understood the frustration of fans who unusually booed them off at the end: “The players are down. I’m down. Fans are down. I don’t blame them. We’re not good enough right now.” Nottingham took too many needless penalties and whilst Garnett was doing an admirable job in net to keep the score line down, there was only one possible winner when the shot count was 33 to 6 in favour of the Steelers. Panthers showed aggression in the final three minutes of the game when Mathieu Gagnon jumped Sheffield’s’ Cole Shudra, following a check from behind. Zack Fitzgerald waded in to fight Gagnon, while Robert Farmer fought Matt Marquardt. Neilson stated that the players wanted a bench clearance, but it was too little too late, and Neilson rightly prevented a free for all that would end in penalties and bans.
Neilson threatened roster changes in light of the poor results and sure enough, Josh Shalla became the first player held responsible and he was released on December 29. The announcement was made on the basis that the coaches wanted to “send a message” to the locker room. Shalla came from Indy Fuel, an ECHL team in North America, to score goals, and he earned himself the top scorer’s jersey in the European Champions League at the beginning of the season. However, he did not replicate this in the league, scoring only three goals and five assists in 26 games. He returned directly back to his old team and scored twice in his first two games. Additional recruitment has been promised, although there is no signing announcement to date. Raphael Bussieres has the same number of goals and assists in 28 games, so he may need to watch his back if multiple signing options become available.
Coincidence or not, Panthers won their first game after the long losing streak when Patrick Galbraith and Evan Mosey returned from injury. On December 30 the team were short-benched against Coventry without Mathieu Gagnon (suspended) and Josh Shalla (released). Coventry scored first and Tim Billingsley followed up with an equaliser that got a cheer loud enough to celebrate a Stanley Cup win. Zack Phillips, Alex Mokshantsev and Evan Mosey all scored goals to push Nottingham into the lead, which made for a tense finish. Coventry had a power play and pulled their goalie to give them six on four players to try and tie the game, but Nottingham held on for a much-needed win and break in form. They won again against Coventry on an away fixture and Manchester, but lost to Cardiff after a devastating first period from the Devils that put them 4-0 up in the first ten minutes. Panthers got it back to a more respectable 2-5, but did not look like beating the Devils.
The league is still open for the taking, but Cardiff as the defending league champions are the team to beat, with a clear seven points ahead of Belfast, who are also genuine contenders if they can avoid penalties and injuries. At third, Fife can catch up with Cardiff if they win all their games in hand, but points are not points until they are converted to wins, as Nottingham proved in December. Sheffield are fourth and have played the highest number of games. They are due to head off to play in the Continental Cup in Europe, which could adversely affect their game back at home with required effort levels, adapting to a different style of play and minimising potential injuries. Nottingham had a fantastic start to the season and if they can string together the consistency that they found at the beginning, they can build confidence again and edge back into the title race. On win percentage, rather than number of games played, they are fourth, rather than seventh.
On a more positive note, Nottingham advanced to the semi-final stage of the Challenge Cup, staging a comeback from a rather lacklustre 1-2 loss in the first leg at Milton Keynes. They took advantage of their ability to find the goal again in the return leg and ran away with a 6-2 lead, giving an aggregate score of 7-4.
Nottingham will play Belfast in the next round, which will be a two-legged aggregate score game. The second game will be in Belfast as they qualified in a higher position. The teams have played each other four times already this season and Nottingham have won three times, the only loss being away in Belfast 2-6. The two teams face each other in the league this weekend in consecutive night games in Ireland, which will be a good warm up for the Cup.
To finish on positive news, the legendary David Clarke has become the Elite League's all-time leading points scorer with 712 points, overtaking Ashley Tait, who has previously played for Panthers.