Report: Panthers 4 Steelers 2
ANOTHER strong final period saw league-leaders Nottingham Panthers turn the game around in their table-topping clash with Sheffield Steelers to beat their title rivals 4-2 at a packed National Ice Centre last night.
Sheffield certainly showed their intentions from the off and looked the more likely team in the first two periods as referee Mike Hicks kept a tight rein on proceedings, which was exactly what the visitors wanted.
But Panthers, nervous at first, stuck at it and after going behind in the 31st minute, they finally put together a remarkable final 20 minutes with three quick goals to stretch their lead at the top of the table.
As expected both sides were at full strength and the fun and games started at the first face-off with players engaging in a spot of fencing.
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And when the game got underway, Panthers' David Clarke was denied by a sprawling save from John DeCaro, resulting in Steelers' Jeff Legue being penalised for hooking. But Panthers failed to get set-up sufficiently to worry the visitors' defence.
Matthew Myers was next to visit the sin-bin, for holding as Panthers tried to keep the puck in the Steelers' zone.
And the Sheffield power-play got much more penetration, with Craig Kowalski forced into a pad save at the near post before two reflex stops from Simon Ferguson as the penalty ended.
The momentum was all Sheffield's with Kowalski far the busier goalie as Panthers tried to get their passing game going.
A slow line change left Panthers short at the back when they lost possession as they pressed but Sheffield failed to capitalise. And when the puck was returned, Matt Francis was penalised for holding.
It was Kowalski to the rescue once again as Steelers threatened on the power-play and the goalie did superbly well to deny Tylor Michel, stretching across his goalline for a point-blank save.
The penalties continued to flow, with Shawn Limpright next in the sin-bin but once again Panthers couldn't get their power-play – the best in the league – to click.
As the period wore on, Panthers were at last starting to get something together with Clarke prominent before, with three minutes remaining, Francis screwed his shot just wide with DeCaro beaten.
But with two minutes to the break, Jason Beckett mis-controlled the puck on the Sheffield blueline leaving Jonathan Phillips to burst clear on Kowalski, and Jon Weaver had little option but to haul back the GB captain and take the penalty.
And more penalties were to come at the end of the first with Guy Lepine and Simon Ferguson having a heated push and shove.
Panthers were clearly looking for a better start to the middle period – and staying out of the penalty box – after being outshot 16-13 in the first and looking distinctly second best for much of the opening 20 minutes.
But Sheffield were first to show again when four-on-four and it came as no surprise when they scored from a two-man breakaway . . . the big surprise that it was former Panthers captain Danny Meyers putting it away just 45 seconds in.
The pressure mounted on the league leaders with two more penalties in quick succession to Steve Lee and Brandon Benedict leaving them defending a lengthy 5-on-3 power-play.
Thankfully Panthers came through that unscathed with brave defending and Kowalski being at the top of his game.
Panthers were continually being caught on the break though and Ferguson was convinced he'd netted a second after his shot bounced out off a post.
And as the home team responded, a pile-up in front of DeCaro's net ended with Chris Frank and Jason Hewitt plus Panthers Beckett sent to the sin-bin.
And as Panthers' power-play came to a close, some patient play in the 31st minute saw David Ling finally find Bruce Graham in space and the big centre powered in the equaliser for his 30th goal of the season.
Panthers found themselves short-handed immediately afterwards, Kelsey Wilson off for slashing but after surviving that, Weaver was next in the sin-bin which was also killed.
All of a sudden Panthers were looking a better team after the successful penalty killing and they were hoping to take that renewed confidence into the final period.
Panthers – outshot in the opening two sessions – started the third on the power-play after Frank was penalised on the hooter for slashing.
And at last, Panthers made the man advantage tell, with that man Ling putting the puck on a plate for Pat Galivan to power past DeCaro (41.34), Jordan Fox again with the second assist.
Coach Neilson momentarily restored the Galivan, Francis, Rob Lachowicz line, and after they'd created more pressure, Drew Fata was penalised for a high stick as Steelers came under the cosh.
And they were made to pay once again in the 48th minute when Fox scored a quite sensational solo goal, dipsy-doodling his way through the Steelers defence before turning DeCaro inside out and tapping into the empty net.
Just seconds later, the Panthers swarming all over the Steelers, Brandon Benedict netted No.4 to get the capacity crowd on their feet.
But Panthers were hit with two penalties in quick succession and Sheffield pulled one back (50.47) through Steve Goertzen after a scramble in front of Kowalski.
Things were starting to get tetchy and Fata got a 2+10 after clashing with Fox but Panthers power-play came to nothing.
And they were happy to see out play and consolidate their position at the top of the table.