Panthers fans will make the difference in key Belfast dates
STAR goaltender Craig Kowalski today paid credit to his team-mates – and their army of supporters – as Nottingham Panthers lie on the verge of a first league title since they reformed 33 years ago.
The American notched up an impressive eighth shut-out of the season in their 2-0 victory over Sheffield Steelers at a packed National Ice Centre on Saturday.
And the following night in Hull, he was four seconds from a successive blank before Stingrays pulled a last-gasp goal back to make it 3-1.
Six points clear at the top with four games to play, it leaves Panthers needing one win against title rivals Belfast on Friday or Saturday this week to clinch the Elite League title for the first time – and their first league championship since reforming in 1980.
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There will be over 500 Nottingham supporters travelling to Northern Ireland and Kowalski said: "Playing in front of our noisy fans certainly pushes you on.
"Having 7,000 in our building definitely helps when it comes to making big saves . . . it's better than when you get 700 playing elsewhere.
"Our fans have been great, though.
"The previous weekend in Scotland, I think we had more supporters at the three games than the home teams did.
"It was the same in Hull. It was nice to get cheered there instead of being booed like we normally are."
Despite his man-of-the-match heroics against Sheffield, when he pulled off at least three world-class saves, Kowalski was quick to praise the efforts of his team-mates.
And he says they will be trying to bring more of the same in the crunch games with Belfast, who fell to a shock 3-2 defeat in Edinburgh on Sunday.
"It was a game we had to win no matter what, so we had to dig deep," he said.
"The guys blocked a ton of shots.
"They battled really hard in the front, clearing a lot of other chances Sheffield could have had.
"But it's been the same for the last few weeks when each one has been a must-win game that we can't afford to lose.
"Every one has been like a play-off game."
This week is the most important in Panthers' recent history and despite them literally having two bites of the cherry to beat their main rivals, playing back to back, Kowalski insists they are only looking at game one.
Even if they lose both games, one win in their two final games against Cardiff next week will suffice.
"The mind set will be no different," he said. "They are two huge games and its in our own hands.
"We have to win one and we'll be trying to get it done.
"Winning two would be nice but we'll take one at a time.
"We've just got to keep battling away like we have been doing and hopefully we've saved some goals up.
"If we don't manage to do the job in Belfast, we'll do it the following Friday (home to Cardiff); and if not then, we'll take it to the last game if necessary on the Sunday (Cardiff away)."