The countdown continues as we reach the climax of the 10th anniversary Rapid Solicitors Elite League season, with now only 18 days of the regular season remaining with but nine of those game days.
After a tremendous extended weekend in Scotland, where Nottingham Panthers won three games in three nights convincingly, there seems no sign of any pressure affecting Corey Neilson’s side as they skate ever closer to that elusive first league title since 1955/56.
Both Panthers and effectively their only remaining challengers Belfast Giants play twice this weekend. If Panthers were to win twice and Giants lose twice the league silverware can be claimed on Sunday night, so we may or may not go to next weekend and of course next Friday and Saturday sees Belfast v Nottingham at the Odyssey Arena on both nights – what a couple of games these could well turn out to be!
With that race perhaps going right to the wire there remains intrigue all over the league and conference standings with every single team still having something meaningful to play for. Nottingham, Belfast, Sheffield and Coventry have already claimed their places in the Play-Offs and Cardiff will do so soon but after that it is anyone’s guess with the other five still battling it all out for the three remaining places.
Of course the Conference standings may well be the route to the Play-Offs, certainly for the winner of the Gardiner Conference, who may well not be amongst the top eight in the final league standings. That remains a remarkable battle with all five teams split by only four points, with Hull skating to the top after a two-win weekend for them.
Even the Erhardt Conference has interest with Belfast hitting the front at the weekend and with those two home games still to play against Nottingham then there is a major question as to whether the potential league winners will win their conference, with difficult games for both Giants and Panthers on the horizon.
Okay, a bumper package of games to get through now, some 13 in total, starting last Wednesday when Braehead took on Sheffield in the Challenge Cup Semi-Final 1st Leg in Scotland.
Things looked good for the home side as they led 2-0 after the opening minute of the second period but a couple of quick powerplay strikes by Steelers turned the tide their way and in the end the visitors hit four straight, with a game winner from Tylor Michel in the 38th minute, to take an important two-goal advantage back down the M74 with them.
A couple of games on Friday with Belfast hosting the first of back to back Odyssey clashes against Cardiff. No fewer than four times did Devils lead but Giants clawed back on each occasion and the only time they led themselves was the game winning strike by Robbie Sandrock in the 52nd minute to claim a priceless 5-4 win in the end.
Also on Friday it was the first game of Nottingham’s extended Scottish weekend. Dundee was venue one and it produced a 4-1 Panthers win with Craig Kowalski making 29 saves and David Ling scoring the game winner in the opening minute of the second period.
Saturday saw game two of Giants v Devils and this time it was a very comfortable 5-0 win for Doug Christiansen’s troops. Stephen Murphy turned away 24 shots for shutout number three of the season and Andrew Fournier grabbed a double, including a 58 second goal that set the hosts on their way.
Braehead v Hull faced off in another of these huge Gardiner Conference games. Clan led by an Ash Goldie strike right up until the 48th minute when that ace goal scorer Jereme Tendler was given the time and space required to fire his side level. No further scoring – into overtime – and 16 seconds in Stingrays claimed the extra point with Kurtis Dulle pulling a great move on Daren Machesney to slide the puck home.
Coventry took on and comfortably beat Dundee in the Skydome by 4-1 with recent signing Adam Henrich claiming a double and peter Hirsch making 29 saves , Fife hosted Nottingham and after dome early resistance were blown away by a powerhouse visiting offence. The 10-2 reversal was a tough one to take for Flyers but Panthers were unstoppable in the second period which they won 5-0, this included three goals in 39 second period minutes. No fewer than 14 Panthers skaters got on the scoreboard with David Ling top scoring with 2+2.
Last game on Saturday saw Edinburgh take two points from Sheffield a second time this season. This time it was the result of a shootout after the team’s shard four goals in regulation and overtime. Only one shooter counted in the one on one contest and it was Curtis Leinweber of Capitals who claimed that winning shot.
On to Sunday and we start with Cardiff v Coventry and a third loss in three nights for Devils as Blaze edged it by the odd goal in five, thanks to a strike in the 27th minute by Greg Leeb on the powerplay. Dundee snapped a seven game losing run in the vital home clash against Braehead, winning 3-0 to inflict a seventh straight loss on Paul Gardner’s side, with Nic Riopel proving too hot for the Clan offence making 36 saves for his third shutout of the season.
Edinburgh were the latest side to fall to the ominous form of Panthers, going 2-0 behind after only 65 seconds on the way to a 6-1 loss, which was only their second in their last eight games. Panthers had Matt Francis score a double as they made it six points from six in Scotland over the weekend.
Hull v Fife was the final game on Sunday and it was Stingrays who jumped to the top of the Gardiner Conference with a 3-1 win. Two powerplay strikes from the unlikely source of Shane Lovdahl paved the way to success for Sylvain Cloutier’s side, who are also now on terms with the pack despite still occupying bottom spot in the league standings.
Finally for this week we take in last night (Tuesday’s) Challenge Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg between Sheffield and Braehead. Steelers led by two after the 1st Leg but by the early stages of the second period Clan had levelled the tie, leading 2-0 on the night with goals by Jordan Krestanovich and Ash Goldie. Skipper Jonathan Phillips finally got Steelers on the board midway through period two but it was not until Lee Esders scored in the 53rd minute that Steelers could breathe remotely easily. With Clan broken the hosts scored twice more to win 4-2 on the night and 8-4 on aggregate – but make no mistake this one was in the balance until late on!
So it’s Steelers v Panthers in the two-legged final – another couple of mouth-watering matches to help climax the season.