Cup the focus as Panthers look to finish off Belfast
THE big games are coming thick and fast for Nottingham Panthers who are in Belfast tonight bidding to reach their fourth successive Challenge Cup final.
Winners for the past three seasons and five times in all, Panthers hold a commanding 5-1 lead from the first leg.
League leaders Panthers put the breaks on Sheffield Steelers' title challenge by beating them last Friday.
And second-placed Belfast kept the pressure on at the top with their own home win against the Steelers on Saturday.
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The Giants are now two points adrift of Panthers having played one game more.
The top two meet in a double header in three weeks time in Belfast, but both teams will put their title aspirations on hold tonight.
And Panthers coach Corey Neilson hopes his side will have the mental edge if the going gets tough.
He said: "Before the Sheffield game, one thing we talked about was having good emotional control.
"In these important games, often the whole bench is stood up screaming at the referee.
"And by the third period, in years past, we've been exhausted – mentally and physically drained.
"That means you don't have a lot left to finish the game with.
"So I've told them to sit down on the bench after their shifts, shut your brains off and when you're ready to go you're fully refreshed and ready to rock.
"We did that against Sheffield and I was delighted."
The more experienced players – especially captain Jordan Fox and ex-NHLer David Ling – are coming to the fore as Panthers close in on a first Elite League title.
And Neilson says it is also the attitude of the entire squad that has contributed to their success this season.
"They are a real professional bunch of guys," he said.
"They love the team, they love winning, and it's our job to get them up and ready for every game.
"For instance, Linger hasn't been great against Sheffield this year mainly because they skate well and take away his time and space.
"We spoke about that; I have challenged him to make sure he moves his feet and make those chances count.
"But we've really had great leadership from him the last few games and he has been really deadly."
Skipper Fox added: "When you play teams like Belfast and Sheffield, they are so talented that you need your best players to be better than their best players.
"We proved that on Friday and hopefully we can keep it rolling against Belfast.
"With so many big games, we've have had to take it one at a time and I almost forgot about tonight!
"We hold a good lead but we will play it like it was zero-zero, hopefully get an early goal and get the momentum keep going from there.
"They play us tough just like Sheffield but every team in the league seems to lift their game against us."
With only two home league games left – plus, hopefully, a Challenge Cup final – Fox says the fervent National Ice Centre crowd can still play its part before the end of the season.
Almost 7,000 packed into the NIC for the Sheffield game and it is also heading for a sell-out the next time Steelers are in town, on March 9.
Fox added: "That last game against Sheffield was the best the crowd has been all year; they were unbelievable.
"Sometimes you can feel they're a little bit nervous in the stands but they were incredible. They might not know this, but we feed off them so much and that game was the perfect example.
"When the crowd is into the game and they're loud it gets our adrenaline going; it gets our heart rates up and we play better.
"We have a few more big games coming up and I hope they make themselves heard once again."