TRCH Full Monty

Left Panther: Stuttering Start for New Look Panthers

2 November 18 words: Ally Porter
illustrations: Adam Poole

After a summer of rebuilding, and an unbeaten pre-season campaign, the Nottingham Panthers are now two months into the league season, and it has been a period of inconsistency.

 

The regular season began with a Challenge Cup game against arch rivals Sheffield Steelers. Spirits were high amongst the huge crowd, and the promise the new team had shown during the pre-season was realised, as Panthers skated to a comfortable 5-2 victory; albeit against a Steelers team didn’t seem to meet expectation. For the new players, it was a great introduction to the domestic campaign, and no fewer than seven of the new faces picked up points during a game that saw five different goal scorers.

A week later and it was time for league action and Panthers started with a home and away series against a short benched Manchester Storm with a pre-game ceremony to officially retire David Clarkes #5 shirt, and give him a deserved ovation his years of service. The crowd was eager to see Panthers continue with the form that they had shown to date and it didn’t take long for many to get a shock. Storm, who finished runners up last season, made a lightning start, pulling a lovely passing move that saw them take the lead after just 20 seconds.

Any thoughts of plain sailing were gone, and Panthers knew they were going to be in for a battle, and a battle is what they got. After Alternate Captain Luke Pither scored a powerplay goal at 13.24, the game remained all square till the final few minutes, helped by some great saves by Storm keeper Matt Ginn. With less than three minutes to go, Storm took a penalty for roughing, their 11th infringement of the evening, and on the powerplay Panthers were finally able to beat Ginn, Justin Kovacs scoring with 2.29 left on the clock. They held on and skated away with a 2-1 victory, and the unbeaten record intact.

The next night in Manchester was a scrappy affair, with both teams taking a number of minor penalties, and a few major penalties thrown in too. This has become a bit of a trait with Panthers, more notably on the road, and they are averaging over eighteen minutes of penalties per game, the third most in the league. On this occasion, the penalties flowed each way, and it didn’t impact Panthers, who were able to come away from the game with a reasonably comfortable 4-1 win, their 8th win in a row.

The following week marked the biggest test to date for the new look Panthers, as they faced the reigning Elite League Champions in Cardiff. Having beaten them in pre-season, confidence was high, and Panthers more than matched the Devils for forty minutes, starting the 3rd period with a well deserved 2-0 lead.

The third period didn’t go to plan, and was the first example of another worrying trait that has crept into the teams performances. With 16.52 left in the game Panthers were leading 2-0, a mere 4 minutes 5 seconds later and Panthers were losing 3-2. The game ended that way, and the unbeaten run was over.

The next night Panthers were away in Coventry, in a feisty game that saw a number of fights. When Alex Guptill buried a pass from Kevin Henderson to make the score 4-2 with just over three minutes of the game remaining, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all but over, but you would have been wrong. Less than a minute after the goal Coventry pulled one back, and 24 seconds later they scored again and forced the game to overtime. Panthers won it on penalties, but it really shouldn’t have got that far.

A few days later and it was all forgotten about as the team made their way over to a blustery Belfast, securing an excellent 6-3 victory against the Giants. This game marked the first game without forward Jon Rheault, who was rested as a precaution, but hasn’t played since due to injury. Rheault had made a slower start, in respect to points, compared to other new signings, and maybe the injury was playing a part.

After Belfast came a home game against Glasgow Clan, and it wasn’t pretty. Panthers looked sluggish and were deservedly beaten 5-2 by a Clan team that had only won one of their  previous four matches. They were never really in the game, and Clan were comfortable throughout. Maybe the team had an eye on the upcoming televised fixture against Cardiff?

If anyone had stumbled across the game on TV, it may have driven them to buy a ticket for the next game they could. In an excellent advert for the Elite League, Panthers and Devils battled hard for sixty minutes, and Panthers got revenge for the league defeat eleven days before. Trailing 2-0 going into the third, a quick fire goal from Tommy Hughes just ten seconds into the third period set the tone for the rest of the night, and the energy levels within the arena lifted.

Hughes got the crowd going again later in the game when he stopped a Devils breakaway with a crunching mid ice hit, sending a Devil flying to the ice, and the crowd out of their seats. With the score balanced at 3-3, and just 3.30 remaining, it was keeper Michael Garnett’s turn to draw the cheers, as he stopped a Joey Martin penalty shot, and, with forty seconds on the clock, Luke Pither sent the crowd into overdrive as he found the back of the net to give Panthers the lead for the first time in the match, a lead that they would hold onto for a superb 4-3 victory.

The Devils game marked the debut of new signing Tyler VanKleef. The Canadian was brought in to cover for the missing Rheault, who is not expected back from injury for some time. Tyler is not the only new signing to join Panthers since the start of the season, with Alexandre Bolduc recently joining to bolster the front line.

Panthers form, however, has taken a considerable dip since the Devils match. The team have won just four out of twelve games; conceding goals in spurts, particularly away from home. Against Milton Keynes Lightning, a close contest was turned on its head when the opposition scored four goals in under three minutes during the second period.

A week later and Giants scored two in 79 seconds with another following moments later, eventually securing a comfortable 6-1 victory. This form continued During a triple header weekend in Scotland, Panthers conceded three in  five minutes against Clan and then two in two minutes against Fife Flyers- twice!

This trend of conceding in batches, and often a large number of goals, has not gone unnoticed. Coach Chernomaz has expressed dissatisfaction in some of the recent performances, not shying away from saying when the team hasn’t performed. Whilst he won’t public criticise individuals, he has made it clear that there are players that are not doing what he wants them to; the coach can choose to scratch players that are not pulling their weight, and he has.

Last weekend, Panthers had an away game against a struggling Sheffield team, followed by a home match against Belfast Giants. Saturday’s game started well, with Luke Pither scoring not long after the three minute mark to give Panthers the lead. It was a lead they held on to for around 53 minutes, despite being outshot, particularly in the third period where Panthers managed just three shots on goal compared to Steelers fifteen.

After conceding an equaliser it felt almost inevitable that Panthers would concede again, and that they did, although they managed to see out the third period, picking up a point in the process, before Steelers took the win with a goal just thirty seconds into 3 on 3 overtime.

The next afternoon, Panthers, back at home after five away games on the trot, started brightly against a short benched, and lethargic looking Giants team. They worked a number of good opportunities, and deservedly took the lead when Brett Perlini fired in from just inside the blue line on a power play. It was the only goal of the first period, although Giants came close to an equaliser, beating Garnett but finding the pipework.

Into the second period, and Belfast came into the game more, but it was Panthers who got the only goal. Dylan Olsen fired the puck high past an unsighted Beskorowany in the Giants net. It was the only goal of the period, but Giants once again hit the pipework as they looked for a goal. After a tough run of away fixtures, and a lack of wins, the hope was this was the game that would get Panthers back on track, and heading into the third period it was looking good.

However, it all changed in the space of 90 seconds. With Panthers shorthanded they had a chance to get a third, but Luke Pither was unable to put the finishing touches on a counter attack, and was then called for hooking, giving the Giants a two man advantage, an advantage they made the most of. In the space of 74 seconds Giants scored twice to tie the game at 2-2, and gain the momentum.

The scores remained all square to the end of the third period and for a second time in two nights it was going to overtime. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same, and when the Giants put a man clean through the outcome was almost certainly going to be a goal, and a goal it was. Panthers went down to their 7th defeat in eight games.

This Panthers team has shown it has plenty of talent, and plenty of potential. The forwards know where the net is, there have been some thunderous hits that have rattled the opposition, there have been some world class saves that have kept the team in games, the players have stuck up for one another, there has been passion, and there has been entertainment.

But there has also been lethargy, lack of concentration, patterns of conceding goals in batches and ill discipline, and if these things continue it will be a rocky season. The team are going through a very bad run of form, and something needs to change if they have any chance of ending the season with silverware. Panthers are sat 3rd in the table, but that is largely due to having played more games than any other team. Based on points per game they are 5th, with Cardiff and Fife setting the pace. The team has proven that they can more than compete with Cardiff, with both games against them being close, but based on current run of form it is very difficult to see Panthers ending the season anywhere close to Devils.

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