Panthers' power sees off the Scots
ULTRA-CONFIDENT Nottingham Panthers made light of their three-games-in-three-nights trek to Scotland to launch into healthy four-point lead at the top of the Elite League table.
They completed a tremendous six-point haul – notching up 20 goals with just four conceded – with a 6-1 victory over a resurgent Edinburgh Capitals in Murrayfield last night.
It follows their 4-1 victory over Dundee on Friday and a scintillating 10-2 triumph 24 hours later to end Fife Flyers' winning run at home.
And with second-placed Belfast Giants matching Panthers win for win, it seems ever likely the double header between the sides at the Odyssey Arena on March 15/16 will decide the outcome of the league title.
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Firstly, though, Sheffield are back in Nottingham this Saturday for another sell-out clash at the NIC, followed by a trip to Hull.
If they win those two and one in Belfast, a first league title since reforming in 1980 will be theirs.
And to be frank, in this mood, Panthers will take a lot of stopping in their six remaining games.
But no one is looking that far ahead.
Before embarking on their trek north – with a following of around 200 travelling fans from Nottingham – we were hearing all sorts of warnings about how Panthers would come unstuck, that three games in succession would be too much for them
After all, Fife were on a seven-game winning streak at home and Edinburgh were in the middle of a good run and coming off the back off another win in Sheffield.
But no-one told Panthers, whose main problem in the two later games came from the petty refereeing of Rab Cowan, whose actions meant neither game was allowed to flow.
He called them 30 minutes in minor or double-minor penalties on Saturday and another 20 minutes last night in Edinburgh.
The fact Panthers – a side renowned for a skilled, passing game – killed them all off but two speaks volumes for their resilience and grit.
But it all got a little too much for ex-NHLer David Ling who was kicked out of the game in Murrayfield ten minutes from the hooter for abuse of ref Cowan after another harsh penalty call.
Matt Francis made up for missing out on the goal spree against Fife Flyers on Saturday, when there were eight different scorers, with two goals against Edinburgh where Panthers enjoyed a blistering start.
From the first puck drop, Kelsey Wilson scored with just 51 seconds gone.
And Edinburgh, without imports Jade Portwood and leading scorer Rene Jarolin, were 2-0 down with barely two minutes gone, Francis drilling home from the right wing through goalie Tomas Hiadlovsky.
Marcis Zembergs gave Caps heart with a power-play goal in the 13th minute as the penalties started to flow.
And they kept on coming in a staccato second period that didn't spring into life until a quick break involving Bruce Graham and David Ling found Jonathan Weaver jumping into the play for Panthers' third (36.09).
And 47 seconds later it was 4-0, with Francis netting his second via a sublime pass in front of goal from line-mate Rob Lachowicz.
In the third period, Ling added a fine fifth when he swooped from behind the net to roof his shot (47.32) and after the league's leading scorer had been kicked out, Matthew Myers forced home No.6 after good work by Wilson on the boards to complete the rout.
The previous night against Fife in Kirkcaldy, Panthers powered into 3-1 lead by the 16th minute with goals from Pat Galivan, Brandon Benedict and Steve Lee, who enjoyed a solid five-point weekend.
Although Jason Pitton added a second Flyers goal before the first break, to go with the earlier equaliser from Casey Haines, they simply didn't know what hit them in the second 20 minutes.
Two goals in 23 seconds from Wilson and Ling took Panthers into a 5-1 lead. Then inside 39 crazy seconds, it suddenly became 8-1.
In the 33rd minute, a stretch-pass out of defence saw David Clarke go clear on the power-play and whip his shot past Bryan Pitton, who was then replaced by back-up Blair Daly.
But the Scottish goalie was given little respite as Graham powered in another on the power-play, followed immediately by the eighth from Lachowicz.
Panthers – who had installed Dan Green in goal for the excellent Craig Kowalski – were in no mood to let up in the final period either.
Despite taking another ridiculous 16 minutes in penalties, they hit double figures for the second time this season with Graham (43.37) and Ling (59.26) rubbing in Panthers' superiority.
All in all, scoring 20 goals with only four conceded and killing off 17 of 19 penalties against them, speaks volumes . . .
EDINBURGH 1, PANTHERS 6
(1-2, 0-2, 0-2)
Francis 2+0; Wilson, Ling 1+1, Lee, Clarke, Werner 0+2; Weaver, Myers 1+0; Graham, Lachowicz, Benedict 0+1
Shots on goal: Caps (on Kowalski 22, on Green 2) 24, Panthers (on Hiadlovsky) 27 (11/9, 6/9, 7/9)
Penalty mins: Caps 8, Panthers 30 (2/6, 6/8, 0/16)
Panthers man of the match: Matt Francis
Referee: Rab Cowan
FIFE 2, PANTHERS 10
(2-3, 0-5, 0-2)
Ling 2+2; Graham 2+1; Clarke, Benedict, Lee 1+2; Lachowicz, Galivan 1+1; Beckett, Francis, Wener 0+2; Wilson 1+0; Myers, Levers, Ward 0+1
Shots on goal: Fife (on Kowalski 19, on Green 10) 29, Panthers (on Pitton 28, on Daly 18) 46 (6/20, 13/15, 10/11)
Penalty mins: Fife 19, Panthers 35 (2/8, 11/11, 6/16)
Panthers man of the match: Bruce Graham
Referee: Rab Cowan
Other results: Belfast 5 Cardiff 0; Braehead 1 Hull 2 (after overtime); Coventry 4 Dundee 1; Sheffield 2 Edinburgh 3 (pen shots); Cardiff Coventry; Hull 3 Fife 1; Dundee Braehead