Nottingham Panthers claim advantage in first leg against Belfast Giants
A THREE-GOAL third period display from holders Nottingham Panthers saw them gain a valuable lead in the first leg of their Challenge Cup semi-final after a 5-1 victory over Belfast Giants at the National Ice Centre last night.
It was always going to be a tight tussle between the top two teams and so it proved in the early stages.
But Panthers always had that vital edge and two opportunist goals from Matt Francis, another two from David Clarke and a superb solo effort from Rob Lachowicz sealed a fine win.
Because of the adverse weather conditions, traffic snarl-ups and the late arrival of Belfast, the game started 18 minutes late.
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Panthers were without the injured Jonathan Weaver and brought in David Beauregard to replace Kelsey Wilson, with the French-Canadian initially playing on the line with Francis and Pat Galivan.
The injury-hit visitors were without Sam Roberts and Will Colbert as well as the suspended ex-NHLer Greg Stewart, but included latest signing Chad Langlais.
Panthers started with their GB line of Matthew Myers, Lachowicz and Clarke and after a few chances had come and gone either way, it was that line that drew the first penalty, David Phillips in the box for boarding on his international team-mate Lachowicz.
The Panthers power-play finally settled down but there was only one real chance created, with Myers redirecting the puck into Garrett Zemlak's chest.
When back to full-strength, Darryl Lloyd was sent clear but his effort from wide on the left was well held by Panthers' goaltender Craig Kowalski.
Neither side could gain any real prominence in the early stages but it was the Panthers' Brit line again that caused Giants problems in the 11th minute, with Myers stealing the puck to set up Clarke – but his shot was blocked at the near post as he was driven wide.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 13th minute with Panthers getting that vital go-ahead goal, Francis bravely diving among the skates to get that vital touch to a blocked shot.
Panthers had another powerplay opportunity in the 17th minute, following a bench-minor penalty to the Giants, and Beauregard went close with a neat wrap-around effort on the restart, but that was the nearest they got before the hooter to end an excellent first period.
After outshooting Giants 13-6 in the opening session, Panthers came out bidding to turn those shots into goals.
And, 90 seconds in, it was that GB line again creating the first chance, Myers whipping his shot against the bar.
It came as no surprise then that, after a spell of intense pressure, the same line came up with goal No.2, Clarke forcing the puck home (23.45) after good work by Lachowicz and Myers.
That trio – fresh from their exploits in Latvia – looked the most likely to score again with Lachowicz's pass from deep just being cut out as Eric Werner prepared to shoot.
Beauregard then did well to set up Galivan with the puck flying around Zemlak's head.
But, in the 27th minute, David Ling was penalised for hooking, giving Giants their first powerplay.
Francis broke clear shorthanded though and his snapshot was just kicked wide by Zemlak, stretching to his right as Panthers killed off the penalty with relative ease.
In the 31st minute, though, after sloppy work in defence, Belfast pulled one back.
Twice Panthers had chances to clear their zone but when the puck was drilled back goalwards, Craig Peacock tipped it past Kowalski.
That sparked a rare spell of Giants pressure as the momentum swung their way but Panthers hit back with Beauregard setting up Francis, but his shot was not good enough to beat Zemlak.
Kevin Saurette was next to see the inside of the penalty box and Panthers were camped in the visitors' zone on their powerplay, but they failed to create anything as the Giants' defence held firm.
Buoyed by their goal, Belfast certainly looked brighter as the period drew to a close and the 12-11 shots on goal reflected their resurgence.
With Panthers looking for a decent lead to take to Belfast in two weeks time for the second leg of the tie, they had the perfect chance to stretch their advantage when Brad Matheson was penalised for tripping Bruce Graham.
But after working what they thought was a third goal, Galivan's effort was washed out after it appeared to hit both post and bar before bouncing clear.
Before the powerplay was over, Clarke was in the sin-bin for tripping and Kowalski had to be sharp to kick away Jeff Mason's effort from the right.
While shorthanded, Beauregard, who was getting stuck in despite a lack of games, chased his hack away and was only just beat to the loose puck by the desperate Zemlak, who had raced out of his goal to clear.
Panthers weren't going to let this one get away from them, though, and in the 47th minute they restored their two-goal advantage with Francis firing home from a tight angle after the puck had squirted across the front of goal.
With eight minutes remaining, Belfast had another powerplay come their way, Graham off for interference, and as their advantage was coming to a close Panthers smashed a superb fourth with Lachowicz stealing the puck centre ice and racing away to beat Zemlak one-on-one in the 54th minute.
And with four minutes remaining, Clarke fired in his second of the game – beating the goalie at his near post for that vital 5-1 scoreline.