Nottingham Panthers
The Nottingham Panthers had an eventful weekend in Belfast. (Credit: Will Hugall)

Nottingham Panthers experienced a weekend of two halves as their trip across the Irish Sea brought goals and some memorable engagement with fans.

The Panthers had a double-header against the Belfast Giants, aiming to catch up with the fifth-placed hosts from their own position of sixth in the Elite Ice Hockey League.

Although they ended the weekend no closer to the Giants than they had started it, there were positives to be taken for Corey Neilson’s side.

The trip began with the Panthers in buoyant mood, as defenceman Duggie Lagrone was the only injured absentee.

A recent bill of fitness is a welcome difference to the Panthers’ tough run in December, when a host of defencemen were missing and forward Jordan Kelsall was first dropped back into defence.

The weekend began with a Friday night fixture at the SSE Arena, and though hopes were high, there was an early dampener on the visitors’ mood.

The Giants ran into a 3-0 lead within the first 11 minutes of the contest, and though Canadian forward Fabrizio Ricci pulled one back for the Panthers, by the 16th minute the Giants had added two more.

Matty Bloor replaced Alex Dubeau as netminder and made two significant saves to keep it at 5-1, but Dubeau would return for the second period.

Scoring dried up at that stage and remained that way until the game’s last five minutes, when the Panthers grabbed a consolation goal through Jordan Kelsall.

That left the final score at 5-2, with Neilson reflecting on “a very frustrating night” in conversation with EIHL media.

“In the first period, they didn’t come to play as a group.

“Goaltender [Dubeau] wasn’t good, we didn’t make good decisions with the puck, frankly I was quite embarrassed.

He added: “I though the response in the second and third [periods] was good, everyone upped their levels a lot but against a team like Belfast you’re never really going to catch them.

“A very frustrating night, but credit to a quality hockey team.”

With the pain of that defeat to spur them on, the Panthers returned to the SSE Arena on Saturday night.

It seemed like there could have been a similar story early on, with an ominous start as Belfast led after three minutes.

The Panthers defence stood up on this occasion, however, and with Adam Brady scoring an equaliser in the 17th minute, it was all square at the end of the first period.

That set up a much better start in the second period, with Brett Welychka beating netminder Tyler Beskorowany one-on-one to bring the first Panthers lead of the weekend.

An electric spell saw Belfast score twice in three minutes to go back into a 3-2 lead, while penalty kills on both sides kept the score that way until the end of the second period.

Brady then levelled the game in the 48th minute from Kelly Summers’ assist, and with Dubeau standing tall in the Panthers net, 3-3 was the final score at 60 minutes.

A five-minute overtime period followed, but neither team could force the decisive goal.

Penalties were required to split the points, and with Craig Puffer and Summer coming up with goals from their efforts while the Giants missed, the Panthers were in full control.

Hammond and Welychka then missed, but Dubeau produced an outstanding performance to save two more and give the Panthers the win.

Whisked off back to England after the game, the Panthers players only had enough time to thank their travelling support from the window of their team coach.

Neilson was effusive in his praise too, thanking supporters for their “amazing” support.

Speaking to Panthers Radio after the game, Neilson said: “We have to thank the fans, they were amazing, they had a huge block in the far corner [of the arena].

“Along with the players, we had to run off at the end of the game like we stole something, we didn’t get an opportunity to run over and do our claps.

“Everyone was flying to get out of there, we were trying to hit a ferry.”

Neilson was also keen to praise his players for their commitment in the second game too.

“[For] the players, that said a lot tonight.

“I challenged them before the game to be their absolute best, give their absolute best engagement, and I thought for the most part pretty much everyone was locked in and playing as hard as they could.”

The results see the Panthers remain in sixth place on 24 points, trailing the Giants by eight points and the Coventry Blaze by nine points.

Neilson’s side return with a trip to the Glasgow Clan on Friday 20 January, before a home tie against the Giants this Saturday, 21 January.