Champions Nottingham Panthers return home to beat Cardiff Devils on penalty shots
IT was a night of celebration for Nottingham Panthers – league title winners for the first time since they reformed back in 1980.
But before the Elite League trophy was officially handed over, they had to first see off the challenge of Cardiff Devils in their final home league game of the season.
Despite their own play-off spot being assured, Cardiff were determined to be the party-poopers and twice came back from behind to take the lead before Panthers levelled it up at 3-3 to take the game into overtime.
And after a goalless extra five minutes, Panthers needed penalty shots to win 4-3, Eric Werner getting the winner.
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Familiar faces from Panthers' not so distant past, determined not to miss this historic occasion, helped to swell the NIC crowd to a record third successive sell-out.
With barely a minute gone, the chants, 'stand up if you've won the league' brought the fans to their feet in a wall of noise.
But Cardiff, despite being understrength, were certainly not going to make this an easy homecoming for Panthers and after Bruce Graham had been denied by Devils' goalie Chris Whitley from in front, the momentum turned the visitors' way with a 5-on-3 powerplay.
Befitting a team with the best penalty-killing units, Panthers saw that off with relative ease and in the sixth minute they were 1-0 up.
They hemmed Devils in their zone and when Jordan Fox beat two players in the corner, his quick pass to David Clarke was powered home from inside the left circle by the GB sniper (6.37).
In the ninth minute it should have been 2-0 but Pat Galivan miscued on the doorstep from another great pass from skipper Fox.
With the pressure going all one way, it seemed only a matter of time before Panthers would add to the scoreline but Whitley, with a matter of luck and judgment, was keeping them at bay.
Matt Francis was next to go close, in the 14th minute, skating from halfway through three challenges before his shot was saved.
And as Panthers forced again, Devils' Max Birbraer slashed Kelsey Wilson culminating in a 'fight' which saw both players sitting five-minute penalties.
The first-period shots on goal, 18/11 in Panthers' favour, failed to show their superiority but they were determined to make this 'homecoming' a winning one and they were all over Devils at the start of the second session.
But when Cardiff broke clear down the right, Craig Kowalski could only pad away the shot from Adam Harding and Rupert Quiney stuffed away the rebound for an unlikely 1-1 scoreline (22.12).
That goal seemed to spark Devils into renewed life but when Panthers caught them out on the break, Birbraer was penalised for hooking.
And from the resultant power-play, David Ling, inevitably perhaps, closed in on goal and his shot bobbled off Whitley and over the line to restore Panthers' lead (25.30).
To their credit, Cardiff weren't going to lie down and Kowalski became the busier of the two goalies as the visitors looked for another equaliser.
And they had a powerplay opportunity in the 31st minute, Clarke off for interference, but Panthers killed that off, letting little through to Kowalski.
It was Panthers' turn to have a powerplay four minutes later, but that also came to nothing.
Kowalski had a fright when a hopeful shot from a face-off came through players and caught him out but he pounced on the loose puck to save the danger.
The period ended with Panthers swarming all over Cardiff's goal but they had to be happy with that 2-1 scoreline going into the third.
Cardiff came out strongly after the second break and when Jon Weaver failed to clear his lines, the incoming shot looped up off Kowalski for Harding to prod home the equaliser with what looked like a suspiciously high stick (44.10).
And the visitors took a shock 3-2 lead just over two minutes later, when good re-cycling saw them force a save out of Kowalski, with Luke Piggott first to the loose puck (46.51) to stun the home fans.
Whitley was having a solid game at the other end as Panthers tried to up the tempo and Devils were forced into desperate measures with Ben Davies off for tripping, but the home powerplay failed to click once again.
They had another powerplay opportunity in the 54th minute and this time, patience paid off when Ling found Graham to drill his shot into the bottom right corner of Whitley's net to level it up at 3-3.
But a delay-of-game penalty on Panthers defenceman Eric Werner saw Devils have a late powerplay opportunity, before the game drifted into overtime and then penalty shots, with Werner hitting the winner.