Panthers still top, but it looks like going to the wire
NOTTINGHAM Panthers will go into tomorrow night's Challenge Cup semi-final second leg away to Belfast Giants brimming confidence.
As well as holding a commanding 5-1 lead from the first leg, league leaders Panthers put the skids under Sheffield Steelers' title chase on Friday, beating the third-placed Steelers 4-2 in a thriller at a packed National Ice Centre.
And 24 hours later in Scotland, Panthers' goaltender Craig Kowalski recorded his seventh shut-out of the season to help them to a thoroughly professional 5-0 victory over Braehead Clan in Glasgow.
With nine games remaining, Panthers have that crucial game in hand on second-placed Belfast and are now two points clear after the Giants' 5-3 win in Cardiff last night.
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Sheffield – who followed their Panthers' defeat by losing 3-1 in Belfast – have played two games more than Panthers and are a further five points adrift after beating Dundee 3-1.
With Panthers still facing a potential title-deciding double-header in Belfast in three weeks, they will no doubt be trying to make a point against the Giants
in their cup clash tomorrow.
But as for now, fans are still talking about Friday's come-from-behind win against arch-enemies Steelers in front of almost 7,000 fans.
Panthers started slowly and were fortunate to be level 1-1 after two periods before they turned it on in the final 20 minutes with three goals.
Neilson said: "We weren't all that good in the first period . . . but thankfully Killer (Kowlaski) was.
"They were initiating the play but Killer was outstanding and we needed his goalkeeping in that first period.
"What we were good at though was blocking shots and denying the second shot opportunites, which we haven't been good at this year.
"We talked a lot about that prior to the game; about putting bodies on the line for the team and being a good soldier.
"They committed to that and I was really proud of them.
"The thing is, we are a team that, every time a line gets out there, it wants to score – and I can accept that because I was that type of player too.
"But they have to accept that, in these games, in these situations, it's a war.
"You have to take each shift as it comes. It's about little individual battles, about taking hills and changing momentum to get the conclusion and ultimately victory."
In such a vital game, referee Mike Hicks was perhaps too fussy in trying to keep a lid on any potential fireworks.
But despite all the penalties, to both sides, Neilson believes it was Panthers' "immense" penalty-killing at the start of the second period that turned the game around.
"They scored early in the second but then we killed that five-on-three penalty straight afterwards," he said.
"That was just immense and from that it sparked belief on the bench and we started initiating and playing good hockey.
"I have no doubt Sheffield will be going all the way to the end, though.
"They've got good imports and a core of true professional Brits. It is that British mentality that I admire."
The game against sister club Braehead just the day after their euphoric victory over arch-rivals Sheffield, always had the potential to become a banana skin – especially after the long trek north.
But this is a different, more hard-nosed Panthers team to seasons long back when 'bus legs' was an all too easy excuse for their regular failings north of the border.
Brandon Benedict, who is in a rich vein of scoring form with nine goals in eight games, settled the nerves when he put home a close-range rebound (3.30) after good work by Bruce Graham to get the travelling fans cheering.
Clan hit back with their best chance coming on a breakaway but Nottingham-born Robert Farmer was denied by a sprawling save from Kowalski.
Panthers really took off in the second period, outshooting the home side 20-4, to net three times.
The second goal came from a 4-on-3 power-play, with David Ling – who has only failed to trouble the scorer once since the turn of the year – powering in from the left circle, from Rob Lachowicz and David Clarke (26.28).
And two minutes later, Clarke made it 3-0, drilling the puck home from a tight angle from a Matthew Myers' feed.
Clan were angry when they had a 'goal' washed out but Panthers shrugged off that scare to hit a fourth just before the second break.
With the visitors quick to get the puck forward, Ling's astute back-hand pass was despatched by Graham, with the puck looping up over goalie Daren Machesney.
And seven minutes into the final period, it was game over when after another sweeping ice-length move, Graham's shot was too good for the goalie.
Ahead of tomorrow's cup game in Belfast, coach Corey Neilson gave plenty of ice time to Josh Ward and Marc Levers, basically running four lines in the final 20 minutes.
MATCH FACTS: BRAEHEAD 0, PANTHERS 5 (0-1, 0-3, 0-1)
Graham 2+1; Ling 1+2; Clarke 1+1; Weaver 0+2; Benedict 1+0; Lachowicz, Myers, Galivan, Lee 0+1.
Shots on goal: Clan (on Kowalski) 22, Panthers (on Machesney) 39 (9/10, 4/20, 9/9)
Penalty mins: Clan 13, Panthers 13 (0/2, 4/4, 9/7)
Panthers man of the match: Bruce Graham
Referee: Dean Smith
Other results: Edinburgh 6, Coventry 2; Belfast 3, Sheffield 1; Fife 4, Hull 2; Dundee 1 , Sheffield 3 ; Cardiff 3, Belfast 5; Hull 3, Braehead 2; Fife 3, Coventry 2 .