Challenge Cup final first leg: Sheffield Steelers 1 Nottingham Panthers 4
BUBBLING Nottingham Panthers put their hands firmly on their cherished Challenge Cup for a fourth successive year after a bad tempered clash in the first leg of the final saw them stun Sheffield Steelers 4-1 at the Motorpoint Arena.
The Elite League champions had their tails up with two goals late in the first period, Bruce Graham and Jordan Fox on the mark.
And they emphasised their superiority with two more strikes from man of the match Rob Lachowicz amid two great fights that kept the travelling fans happy.
Sheffield were given heart when Jeff Legue pulled one back but they will have all on to turn this one round at 'fortress NIC' on April 2 as Panthers look for a trophy double.
The visitors were able to announce a full-strength line-up after their exertions in Belfast at the weekend, while Steelers left out former Panther Scott Champagne with James Jorgensen getting the 11th import spot.
An end-to-end start saw Panthers perhaps having the most constructive pressure with Lachowicz and Matt Francis working hard for a shot which went wide.
But Tylor Michel lifted the home crowd with a wrap-around attempt before Craig Kowalski froze the puck on the second shot.
Kowalski had to be sharp when he combined with Jason Beckett to deny Rod Sarich and then the goalie came up with a super glove stop from Jonathan Phillips.
The first penalties came after eight minutes, when Simon Ferguson and Panthers' Steve Lee clashed.
With neither side managing the breakthrough four-on-four, Panthers had the first power-play of the night when Jason Hewitt was sin-binned for roughing (11.25).
But the league's best special teams failed to get one past goalie John DeCaro and they had another chance on 16 minutes when Panthers' speed of movement caught out Drew Fata, who went into the box for tripping.
And this time, David Ling and Eric Werner moved the puck well for leading goalscorer Graham to put the cup holders in front on the power-play from just inside the right circle (17.23).
And less than 90 seconds later, it was 2-0 with Panthers winning the draw on the blueline and skipper Fox drilling in his long-range wrist-shot to leave DeCaro flapping.
There were fears Panthers might have been suffering a league-winning hangover but on the evidence of the first 20 minutes, they clearly have another trophy in their sights.
The visiting supporters were in high spirits, understandably, and they were on their feet again at the start of the second period when Guy Lepine and Steelers' Chris Frank went at it, with the big Panthers defenceman getting in some real bombs in a cracking scrap.
When the game restarted, Sarich's pass into the crease ended with a scramble in front of Kowalski but Panthers were still creating the better chances with David Clarke next to show, powering his effort just wide of DeCaro's left-hand post.
Lachowicz set up Francis for a snap-shot with Sheffield then racing down the other end for Kowalski to stone-wall Jeff Legue.
Fox had a golden opportunity to hit a third, but DeCaro was equal to the attempt, deflecting the puck wide with his pad.
Sheffield's first powerplay came in the 24th minute, Matthew Myers off for interference, but that was negated when Michel took out Graham off the play.
But the four-on-four became four-on-three with Beckett off for interference as referee Andy Carson made his presence felt.
Steelers were getting desperate to set something up but as Myers jumped out of the box to make it four-on-four, he outmuscled Fata in the right corner to whip the puck across goal for Lachowicz to tap in No.3 (26.41).
And it was nearly 4-0 on the next shift when Myers fired in a corker but the puck pinged clear off the crossbar with DeCaro beaten.
Things were starting to get a little techy now and on the hour mark, a pile-up behind Kowalski's goal saw Fox and Steelers' pair Fata and Frank dispatched to the sin-bin.
Beckett was next to drop his gloves and Ferguson was left with a bloody nose after taking a real beating from the Nottingham defenceman in the 32nd minute, with both players getting five-minute fighting penalties.
The indisciplined Steelers were penalised once again and while defending Panthers' power-play, Matt Stephenson speared Graham with ref Carson immediately kicking him out the game.
It left Panthers with a lengthy 5-on-3 powerplay but they seemed more intent on winding the clock down and the period ended with them three goals to the good.
In the first minute of the third period, Panthers netted a fourth goal that left Steelers shaking their heads in disbelief.
More great hustling behind the net forced Jorgensen to cough up the puck and when it was played out into the middle, Lachowicz, with time and space, drilled it past DeCaro for his second of the night.
But Sheffield showed they were not out of it and pulled a goal back in the 43rd minute when Legue raced down the right to fire in a shot over Kowalski's shoulder .
Ferguson came close to adding a second for the resurgent Steelers before more penalties saw Michel kicked out for abuse of the officials and Lepine getting 2+2 for roughing, leaving Sheffield on the power-play.
But Panthers killed that one off and when they had the man advantage shortly afterwards, they went close to a fifth goal with Francis twice being denied by DeCaro.
With seven minutes left, Steelers called a time out after Beckett was penalised for holding Ferguson as he burst clear on goal and he was sitting another penalty shortly afterwards, which brought ironic cheers from the home crowd.
But the indisciplined Steelers totally lost it at the end trying to draw Panthers into fights and it all ended with a bad taste with no handshakes.