Panthers turn on the style – but show their fallibility
TABLE-TOPPERS Nottingham Panthers played what must have been their most dominant three periods of hockey of the season over the weekend to earn themselves four more valuable points towards that elusive first Elite League title.
But, much to coach Corey Neilson's aggravation, the periods were split over their two wins in a Scottish home double-header at the National Ice Centre.
They are now three points clear at the top, ahead of Sheffield Steelers who are at the NIC on Friday.
On Saturday, with Jonathan Weaver and Kelsey Wilson back in the line-up, two scintillating periods of hockey reaped the dividends for Panthers as seven goals in 40 minutes put paid to the challenge of Braehead with a 7-3 scoreline.
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And last night, Fife Flyers only conceded a solitary goal in a one-sided first period before staging a minor fightback after trailing 3-0 to finally lose 5-3.
But as satisfied as he was with two more wins to leave them still ahead of the pack, Neilson was none too pleased that his players let their high standards slip at times by shipping sloppy goals, especially last night when their power-play also lacked penetration.
The highlights against Braehead were, of course, Brandon Benedict's first professional hat-trick which included a superlative short-handed strike; back-up goalie Dan Green's marvellous triple save in the third; and David Ling's 'water-ski' display.
Yes, the Panthers' joker, bored with the delay as the ice was being cleared of glass after a breakage at the penalty bench at the start of the third period, entertained the crowd with his 'water-skiing' performance behind the Zamboni, including little jumps over the imaginary bow waves.
And the Canadian ex-NHLer did the stuff during the game too, with four assists before Panthers took the foot off the gas, giving plenty of ice time to the entire bench ahead of yesterday's clash with Fife.
And it seemed to pay off as they opened last night with as dominant a display you will see after netting the first goal inside two minutes, with Benedict on target once again.
And it was that line, with Ling and Bruce Graham, that terrorised the Scots with skipper Jordan Fox frightening them to death every time he burst into their zone.
Some magic from Fox six minutes into the second period saw Panthers go two-up.
Flyers goalie Blair Daly – starting in place of injured import Bryan Pitton – was injured in the process under a challenge from Wilson.
After Pat Galivan had netted a third, from Fox again, Daly was helped off to be replaced by Craig Douglas who was making his first appearance of the season.
Almost immediately, Fife started to string passes together and pulled one back through Caisey Haines (31.39), before that man Fox steamed forward to hit Panthers' fourth (34.11).
But two goals in 34 seconds from new signing Podge Turnbull (35.00) and Jason Pitton (35.34) got the travelling fans singing and all of a sudden they were back in it.
Thankfully, another sweet move saw Ling fire a well-worked fifth to calm the nerves.
Panthers then hit the goal-frame three times in a wide open final period and although both sides had power-play opportunities, there was no more scoring.
Twenty-four hours earlier Panthers started like a train against their sister club with three goals in the opening nine minutes as Clan didn't know what hit them.
Although Wilson was back in for David Beauregard, coach Corey Neilson retained his all-Brit line and they hemmed in Clan from the off and softened them up for Guy Lepine's opening goal (1.24), via the stick of former Panther Jade Galbraith.
Clan hit back, though, with ex-coach Jordan Krestanovich being denied by the excellent Craig Kowalski and from the goalie's deflection behind the goal, Panthers roared forward with Benedict making it 2-0 with a simple finish (3.35).
Kowalski came to the rescue from Weaver's miscued clearance but when Wilson was penalised for seeking retribution after a hit on Matt Francis, Panthers went 3-0 up short-handed with Benedict leaving the Clan defencemen in his wake before a great finish past Daren Machesney (8.24).
Panthers continued their dominance at the start of the second and after raining in shot after shot on the goaltender, Benedict completed a straight hat-trick off a rebound (21.15).
They continued to put on a show of hitting, passing and smothering defence and it came as no surprise when, with their first power-play of the night, leading goalscorer Graham angled in his 29th of the season (31.05) when Machesney could only parry Fox's soft shot.
More overwhelming pressure, with Josh Ward prominent, saw David Clarke put away goal No.6 (33.11) resulting in the angry Machesney smashing his stick against the goal-frame before storming off and making gestures to the mocking crowd – and getting a match penalty from referee Dean Smith for his troubles.
On the resultant power-play, Weaver finished Panthers' scoring to make it 7-0 and Clan – with back-up goalie Mike Will between the pipes – must have been left wondering what was coming in the final period.
But Neilson's thoughts must have already been on the game 24 hours later as he installed Green in goal and spotted in Marc Levers and Ward into the lines throughout the 20 minutes.
Clan were shooting on sight now and they finally got one to count when an uncharacteristic mistake from Steve Lee left Brock McPherson to power his shot past Green (42.57).
Recent signing Matt Schepke collected his own rebound for Braehead's second goal (49.06) and he netted a third (51.06) either side of Green superbly stonewalling three successive shots from close range.
But there was no way Panthers were going to let this one get away from them and they comfortably ran down the clock with the job well and truly done.
PANTHERS 5, FIFE 3
(1-0, 4-3, 0-0)
Fox 2+1; Galivan 1+2; Ling, Benedcit 1+1; Grahqm 0+2; Francis 0+1
Shots on goal: Panthers (on Daly 23, on Douglas 19) 42 Fife (on Kowalski) 21 (15/7, 17/7, 10/7)
Penalty minutes: Panthers 8, Fife 10 (2/0, 0/4, 6/6)
Panthers man of the match: David Clarke
Referee: Neil Wilson
PANTHERS 7, BRAEHEAD 3
(3-0, 4-0, 0-3)
Ling 0+4; Benedict 3+0; Werner 0+3; Francis 0+2; Clarke, Weaver, Graham, Lepine 1+0; Myers, Fox 0+1
Shots on goal: Panthers (on Machesney 22, on Will 15) 37 Clan (on Kowalski 24, on Green 16) 40 (11/10, 17/14, 9/16)
Penalty minutes: Panthers 8, Clan 29 (2/0, 4/27, 2/2)
Panthers man of the match: Brandon Benedict
Referee: Dean Smith
Other results: Belfast 2, Coventry 5 (Friday); Sheffield 3, Fife 0; Belfast 8, Coventry 2; Edinburgh 8, Dundee 2; Hull 2, Cardiff 1; Sheffield 4, Hull 0; Coventry 3, Edinburgh 2; Cardiff 3, Dundee 2 (pen shots).