Panthers one win away from their first league title
BUBBLING Nottingham Panthers are one win away from clinching the Elite League title for the first time.
Yes, that's the stark reality after another highly-efficient four-point weekend that, it must be said, wasn't without its nervy moments.
They notched up a narrow 2-0 victory over Sheffield Steelers at a sell-out National Ice Centre on Saturday, thanks to David Clarke's second period power-play goal and an empty-netter from Guy Lepine in the last minute.
And last night they followed up with a 3-1 win in Hull, thanks to two goals in the final period to leave their army of travelling fans singing in the stands.
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And with title rivals Belfast Giants falling to a shock 3-2 defeat in Edinburgh, it leaves Panthers six points clear at the top with four games to play after a fantastic run of 17 wins in 18 games.
So it looks like it will all boil down to this coming Friday and Saturday when Panthers are in Northern Ireland for a double-header against the Giants.
And they will be hoping goaltender Craig Kowalski maintains his current superb form.
After his eighth shut-out of the season to break Steelers' hearts, he came within four seconds of a repeat on Humberside last night but was beaten right at the death.
Panthers made their intentions clear from the off in Hull when they scored from the first face-off.
Kelsey Wilson was the man on target after just 19 seconds.
David Beauregard – in the line-up for Pat Galivan – then hit a post on his first shift.
With three minutes gone in a feisty opening, Panther Steve Lee and Dominic Osman were sin-binned for fighting.
Hull, who were without Jason Silverthorn, hit back from that early setback but Jereme Tendler wasted a good opportunity to level.
Ben Bowns was the busier of the two goalies in the opening period and it was much the same story after the break as Panthers piled in the shots.
Beauregard was twice denied by the GB goalie who was having a cracking game although the visitors weren't getting bodies in front of him.
But Hull weren't on their best run of the season, a four-game winning streak, for nothing and Kowalski had to be at his best to keep out Sylvain Cloutier.
It was all getting a little tense in the stands as Panthers struggled to find that crucial second goal to create some daylight between the teams.
But when it came, in the 46th minute it was, perhaps inevitably, Beauregard on target with a simple finish when Jordan Fox put the puck on a plate for him.
And after superbly killing off a 5-on-3 power-play, Clarke wrapped it up with goal No.3.
Jeff Smith at least gave the resurgent Hull something to shout about when he ruined Kowalski's shut-out.
The previous night, canny coach Corey Neilson denied Sheffield their usual game by locking up their break-out passes from defence, denying them any odd-man rushes which they thrive on
It also meant Panthers' usual potency in front of the net was sacrificed but on a night when they were clearly not at their most fluent, it was a game they nonetheless controlled for much of the 60 minutes even if their scoring chances were minimal.
And whenever the visitors did manage to break through, the outstanding Kowalski once again showed why he is the league's best goaltender by a long stretch with at least three top-drawer saves.
In a tight opening period, the nearest either team got to breaking the deadlock was in the eighth minute when a neat deflection by Rob Lachowicz from Fox saw Steelers' goalie John DeCaro make the block.
Two Panthers power-plays came and went without any real threat before Ashley Tait was denied by Kowalski close in when Steelers had the man advantage.
The momentum briefly swung Sheffield's way but Kowalski made a fine double save from Simon Ferguson to ensure the sides went in level at the first break.
At the start of the second period, a brave diving poke check from Matt Francis ended a rare Sheffield breakaway but six minutes in, Panthers finally scored with Clarke sweeping in to fire home on the power-play from Bruce Graham and Jon Weaver.
It was no more than Panthers deserved but they still struggled to get the puck away whenever Steelers sent in two men fore-checking.
And with Panthers asleep at the start of the final period, Kowalski came to the rescue when he went full length to dive among the skates to stab the puck to safety.
Skipper Fox then almost cut Ferguson in half with a ferocious check that left the Steelers forward on his knees.
That hit lifted the capacity crowd and almost immediately, an excellent rush by Matthew Myers set up Wilson who beat DeCaro only for the puck to ping back out off a post.
In the 45th minute, Tait was left staring in disbelief when Kowalski blocked him point-blank at the far post and two minutes later Panthers had a chance to make it 2-0 when Lachowicz was unfairly impeded as he was about to shoot on a breakaway.
Referee Mike Hicks duly awarded the penalty shot but unfortunately, the chance was wasted with the puck running off the GB winger's stick and he failed to get a shot away.
But when play was restarted Sheffield thought they'd scored a power-play equaliser, Myers in the sin-bin, only for Hicks to wash it out because the goal was off its moorings before the puck crossed the line.
Steelers' Tyler Michel stormed after the referee, angrily pushing the goalframe in his direction and was immediately given a ten-minute misconduct penalty. He was lucky the punishment wasn't worse.
With Myers making a quick return to the penalty box, Kowalski was again to the fore for Panthers with another reflex save from Rod Sarich when the Steeler seemed destined to score.
With the clock running down, both sides called a time-out and when Sheffield withdrew DeCaro for the extra skater, Lepine's rink-length shot from his own goal-line found the corner of the empty net. The relief in the stands was palpable.
HULL 1, PANTHERS 3
(0-1, 0-0, 1-2 )
Clarke, Beauregard 1+1; Myers 0+2; Wilson 1+0; Fox, Weaver 0+1
Shots on goal: Hull (on Kowalski) 19, Panthers (on Bowns) 44 (7/15, 8/18, 4/11)
Penalty minutes: Hull 13, Panthers 13 (9/7, 2/0, 2/6)
Panthers man of the match: Brandon Benedict
Referee: Mike Hicks
Attendance: 1,700 (est)
PANTHERS 2, SHEFFIELD 0
(0-0, 1-0, 1-0)
Clarke, Lepine 1+0; Fox, Graham, Weaver 0+1
Shots on goal: Panthers (on DeCaro) 27 Steelers (on Kowalski) 29 (12/9, 8/7, 7/13)
Penalty minutes: Panthers 8, Steelers 18 (4/4, 0/4, 4/13)
Panthers man of the match: Craig Kowalski
Referee: Mike Hicks
Other results: Braehead 2, Belfast 3; Coventry 4, Cardiff 3; Hull 5, Dundee 3; Cardiff 4, Sheffield 5; Edinburgh 3, Belfast 2; Dundee 5, Hull 4.