Nottingham Panthers are one win away from winning the Elite Series after taking game one of the best of three series against Sheffield Steelers in a keenly fought 5-3 victory.
It was a deserved win for Tim Wallace’s side, who scored timely goals and defended well when it mattered to keep the Steelers at bay and pick up their fifth straight win.
The first period was something of a cagey affair, with both team’s defences giving little away and both goalies keeping their defence organised.
Jackson Whistle and John Muse both started in their third consecutive games, while Liam Kirk returned for Steelers after a back injury.
But the first ever play-off series game was finely poised for much of the first period. Although Steelers started the better of the two teams, it wasn’t long before Panthers were testing Sheffield’s goalie themselves.
Robert Dowd tried a turn and shot, but was denied by a kick save by Whistle, before Nick Dineen tried to manoeuvre his way backwards from the angle to force the puck in at Muse’s near post, but was given short shrift.
📊 GAME 1️⃣ – WHO WILL WIN? 📊
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A double chance from Kirk looked dangerous, but the second of those resulted in Panthers’ D-man Mark Matheson having to take a seat on a slashing penalty late in the first.
It was here that Aaron Fox’s team made the breakthrough when Dowd, played in by Connolly, let a snap shot go from the left face off circle that found its way in under Whistle’s right arm at the near post.
Panthers hit back in the early stage of the second period when they forced a turnover, catching Steelers on the hop as Christophe Boivin found Kevin Domingue on the right.
He played in Brett Perlini through the centre and although Muse made the initial save, Matheson arrived to finish it off.
Moments later, Sheffield could have gone behind when Josh Tetlow’s shot smacked off the post, but it wouldn’t be long before Tim Wallace and his bench were celebrating again.
Matheson sent a pass across the blue line to Dominic Talbot-Tassi, who sent a shot flying into the net to put them 2-1 ahead.
Steelers were enjoying the best of periods as they found themselves playing second best. Passes weren’t quick finding their mark and their defence toiled when Nottingham came forward.
Muse nearly made a costly error when a slack pass nearly provided Austin Cangelosi with the easiest of efforts, but Sheffield soon found a way to draw level again.
Bunched up at the boards behind the Panthers goal, Nick Dineen played a back pass to try and move the puck away, only to find Sheffield’s captain Jonathan Phillips gratefully receiving and finishing five hole past Whistle.
A minute later though, Nottingham restored their lead on another quick thinking move to put Steelers on the back foot as Lewis Hook set up Tetlow, who rifled a diagonal shot past Muse, getting his first point of the tournament.
Sheffield didn’t give up though as a bizarre yet intelligent piece of play from Josef Mikyska gave them the equaliser as the Steelers man made his way through the centre and seemed to be forced to go wide by the tracking D-man.
However, on the turn, he fired the puck in and find its way at the back post to leave Whistle stunned and the equaliser triggered a strong couple of minutes to end the period that needed the Panthers goalie to be on top form.
At 3-3 going into the third, this first game could have gone either way, but you felt Panthers definitely had it in them to get the goals they needed to secure the win.
Sheffield started strong at the beginning of the final frame, continuing where they left off before the second break. However, three minutes in, it was Nottingham who were celebrating again.
Boivin set up Ollie Betteridge, who hit the post in an open net as Muse scrambled to recover. The puck popped loose and Panthers’ number 74 stuck it away at the second time of asking.
Steelers challenged the goal, with refs Tom Pering and Andy Dalton checked the footage, but saw no infringement and the “away” team were in front once more.
As the time ticked down, Sheffield looked to find a way through, with Sondre Olden unlucky on two occasions, while Talbot-Tassi had to use his hand to scoop the puck away after Whistle had made another key save.
Minutes later, Jordan Kelsall was out through on Muse at the other end and it would most certainly have been ‘goodnight’, if the young forward had found the net, rather than hit the goalie with his shot.
Whistle had to make the save of the game late on when Robert Dowd spotted Jeremy Beaudry arrived late at the back post, with no one near him. The Panthers goalie did brilliantly to get across his crease and make the block, effectively killing Steelers off.
It was only when Talbot-Tassi sent the puck through the centre into the empty net that the feeling that the job was done could be entertained.
The win was big for Panthers at this stage, but they need to do it all again tomorrow.
POST GAME REACTION
The game plan worked for Tim Wallace and his Panthers team and they seemed to have the Steelers’ number again as they beat them for the third time in five meetings.
In net, Jackson Whistle is making a solid claim for the starting berth in the World Championships for GB and doing so at the expense of Ben Bowns, the man who has that berth.
Two of the goals he lost he will be frustrated with, but in the main, he showed the reason why Wallace gave him the nod for the third straight game. That save from Beaudry late on was outstanding and as important as Betteridge’s game winner.
The defencemen have steadily improved in this competition for Panthers and keeping such a threat in Kirk, Connolly, Dowd and Eberle, given how potent they’ve been is a real credit.
Beaudry and Olden were Steelers’ contributors with shots on goal, trying six times each, but to no avail and it summed up their night.
Aaron Fox has a busy night ahead of him as he tries to figure out how to break down a tough Panthers defence and take game two.
It could be quite a job for him in the next 24 hours.
SHOTS ON GOAL: Steelers 39 Panthers 29
Steelers – Robert Dowd (19:50 – Connolly, Schulze PP); Jonathan Phillips (31:23 – unassisted); Josef Mikyska (36:53 – unassisted)
Panthers – Mark Matheson (22:20 – Perlini, Domingue); Dominic Talbot-Tassi (27:26 – Matheson, Griffiths); Josh Tetlow (32:27 – Hook); Ollie Betteridge (42:55 – unassisted PP); Dominic Talbot-Tassi (59:12 – unassisted)