A new month brings season into focus for the Panthers
MARCH is the month of destiny for Nottingham Panthers as they look to seal their first league title since reforming in 1980.
Panthers currently lead the Elite League table by two points and have a game in hand over second-placed Belfast, who they face in a double-header in the Province in two weeks' time.
And their nine-game stretch to the end of the regular season starts tonight in Dundee (7.30pm) with the first of their gruelling three-games-in-three-days road trip to Scotland.
They play Fife tomorrow (7.15pm), looking to end Flyers' seven-game winning run at their Kirkcaldy rink.
And on Sunday, they are at Murrayfield (6pm) facing an Edinburgh Capitals' side that has hit a rich vein of form in a late bid to clinch a play-offs spot.
Each game presents a different problem for Panthers, who will be bidding to maintain their unbeaten run north of the border this season and return with a valuable six-point haul.
They head to Scotland full of confidence after Tuesday's hard-earned 4-3 victory in the Challenge Cup semi-final second leg in Belfast, which secured them a place in the final for the fourth successive year.
Coach Corey Neilson says that self-belief stems from the players' ability to pick up the slack when any aspect of their game goes awry.
Against Belfast, for instance, Neilson wasn't entirely happy with his side's performance but he said: "It's the sign of a good team when it still wins despite not firing on all cylinders."
And he believes Panthers' speed, size and physicality will come to the fore once again in the upcoming games.
Tonight, they come up against former player Sami Ryhanen, who is vying with Panthers' David Ling as the league's leading scorer.
"Sami has has done well up there and is clearly playing pretty fantastic hockey for them," said Neilson. "His game thrives when he is given time and space, so we have to deny him with our speed and aggression.
"It will be much the same against Fife who take full advantage of their tight, old rink, with its odd bounces. It's a bit like the Whitley Bay rink in that respect.
"And in Edinburgh, they will be playing that familiar sitting back style, looking to hit us on the break.
"It's proved very successful for them recently, but against teams who play a more traditional European-type game like they do, you really have to be physical.
"Players don't like being smashed into the glass all night long."
Panthers' special teams – the power-play and penalty-killing units – have made a major contribution to their successful season so far.
They top the league charts in both, with a success rate of almost 25 per cent for converting power-play chances into goals and just short of a massive 87 per cent penalty killing.
Neilson added: "It's good to see us with top-end numbers for our special teams, but also for goaltending (Craig Kowalaski) and points (David Ling).
"The thing is, I am always pushing them to strive to be better and not be comfortable.
"The game in Belfast was the perfect example when everyone made a contribution.
"We were leading by four goals from the first leg but there was no way we were going to let them back into the tie. We were not very good in that first period when they took a 1-0 lead.
"But even when things aren't going too well we always seem to have someone who comes up with something.
"In this case it was Kelsey Wilson, who basically won the game for us with his massive, monstrous equaliser at the end of the first period following a spell of dynamite hockey.
"It was the first time really we'd shown anything. But from then on, we demonstrated once again that not only do these guys not like to lose, they want to excel."
Tonight: Belfast v Cardiff; Dundee v Panthers (7.30pm).
Tomorrow: Belfast v Cardiff; Braehead v Hull; Coventry v Dundee; Fife v Panthers (7.15pm); Sheffield v Edinburgh.
Sunday: Cardiff v Coventry; Dundee v Braehead; Edinburgh v Panthers (6pm); Hull v Fife.