Elite League Playoff Weekend Preview

The Nottingham Panthers conclude their season this weekend with what is undoubtedly the biggest weekend of their season, the Elite League Playoff Finals weekend.

After squeezing past the Guildford Flames in the two-leg quarter final last weekend, the Panthers maintained a remarkable run of reaching the semi-finals of at least one competition in every season since 1992.

Going in search of a first domestic trophy since 2015-16, Nottingham will take on the newly crowned league champions, the Belfast Giants, at 3pm on Saturday afternoon with a place in Sunday’s all-important grand final on the line.

Lose, however, and they will end the season with the damp squib of the third and fourth place playoff game.

There can be no hiding the size of the task that lies ahead of the Panthers on Saturday afternoon.

Having just recorded their lowest ever finish of the Elite League era, Nottingham will go toe-to-toe with an all-conquering Belfast Giants side, who have already been crowned Elite League and Challenge Cup Champions.

The Giants are once again aiming to become the first side to win British ice hockey’s grand slam (winning all three domestic trophies) since Corey Neilson’s Panthers team of 2012-13.

Having been denied the grand slam in the Playoff Final by the Cardiff Devils in each of the last two years, many in the ‘teal army’ will be hoping this is finally the year.

As is to be expected with a league-winning side, Adam Keefe’s men are the league’s top scorers, as well as boasting the tightest defence. Their powerplay and penalty kill units are also the league’s best-performing.

The lethal Scott Conway is the league’s top scorer with an astonishing 90 points from 51 games (40+50), while captain David Goodwin, part of what is statistically the league’s best forward line alongside Conway and Steven Owre, sits third in the scoring charts with 70 points from 53 games (15+55).

Belfast’s goalscoring is so impressive that they have no fewer than five players in the league’s top 15 scorers (Conway, Goodwin, Gabe Bast, Mark Cooper and Owre). By contrast, Nottingham’s top scorer Mike Hammond sits 41st.

However, it’s not just their goalscoring that makes the Giants such a difficult proposition to face, they also have a watertight defence.

Defencemen Sam Ruopp and Bast both sit inside the top five in the league on +/- (alongside Conway and Goodwin), while three-time league and cup champion Tyler Beskorowany is, for many people’s money, the best goaltender in the league.

The 32-year-old, who was coaxed out of retirement by Keefe in January, has the league’s best save percentage and goals against average in what is now his third spell in teal.

Belfast do, however, have something of a hoodoo surrounding them at Playoff Finals weekends. Despite winning the Elite League title six times since the league was formed in 2003, they have only clinched the Playoff title once, when Evan Cheverie scored the winner on penalty shots in the 2009-10 season.

Since then, the Giants have lost in the final on four occasions, meaning there will be a touch of anxiety from everyone connected to the organisation to put an end to that run.

After defeating the league’s second placed team in Guildford, the Panthers will be full of confidence coming into this weekend, despite a torrid league campaign.

Nottingham come into the Playoff weekend with a history and a reputation to protect. With five Playoff titles to their name, Nottingham are the joint most successful team in Elite League Playoff history.

That said, the Panthers haven’t reached the final since they beat the Coventry Blaze in 2015-16 and the 9-4 humbling at the hands of the Cardiff Devils in 2018-19 (their last semi-final appearance) has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the black and gold faithful.

After a seventh placed finish in the league, the Panthers are very much the underdogs in this clash, but with four wins from their ten games in all competitions against Belfast this season, they can boast a better record than many against Keefe’s men.

They do also have something of a trump card on their side in Corey Neilson. Neilson is the most decorated Playoff coach in Elite League history, with four Playoff titles to his name, and has a reputation of being a master of coaching in huge, one-off games.

During a six-year spell between 2010 and 2016, Neilson brought trophy after trophy to Nottingham, as the Panthers dominated British hockey’s cup competitions. They will surely need yet another masterclass from the Canadian if they are to pull off the impossible this weekend.

From a selection point of view, there are few dilemmas facing Neilson ahead of Sunday.

Peyton Jones has cemented his place as the starting goaltender since he was released by Belfast earlier in the season and will almost certainly start this weekend.

With Luke Ferrara recently ruled out for the season, the fitness of Mike Caruso is the only real concern, meaning Neilson may call on 18-year-old hometown boy Archie Hazeldine to line up on the blueline.

If Caruso is fit enough to play, Neilson has a decision to make regarding Hazeldine. He could opt to play the youngster, allowing Jordan Kelsall and Fabrizio Ricci to move back up front, which would in turn give Neilson the ability to run four forward lines, which could provide crucial extra energy.

Nottingham’s dangerman is without doubt the electric David Levin. The Israeli born Canadian has nine points (6+3) in his last six games and has grown into an extremely important member of Neilson’s team.

Capable of producing moments of magic, none more so than his jaw-dropping between-the-legs goal against Cardiff in February, Levin’s individual ability will be key to Nottingham’s performance this weekend.

Saturday’s second semi-final sees a mouth-watering clash between the Cardiff Devils and the Sheffield Steelers.

The Devils come to Nottingham with the aim of becoming the first side in Elite League history win the Playoff title four seasons in a row, while the Steelers return to the Playoff weekend for the first time since losing in the 2017-18 final.

With four wins each against each other in the regular season, Saturday night’s clash between the league’s third and fourth placed teams promises to be gripping and will be keenly watched by Panthers fans with the potential of a final against bitter rivals Sheffield on the cards.

No matter the outcome of this weekend, Playoff weekend will surely bring the same vibrant, buzzing atmosphere it always does, as hockey fans from every corner of the UK gather at the National Ice Centre.

While it would certainly come heavily against the odds, maybe, just maybe, Corey Neilson and the Panthers have another couple of shocks in them yet.

Saturday 15th April 2023

Semi Final 1: Belfast Giants v Nottingham Panthers (3pm)

Semi Final 2: Sheffield Steelers v Cardiff Devils (7pm)

Sunday 16th April 2023

3rd/4th Playoff: Loser of Semi Final 1 v Loser of Semi Final 2 (1pm)

Final: Winner of Semi Final 1 v Winner of Semi Final 2 (7pm)

*Article provided by Evan Shaw (Nottingham Panthers Correspondent).

*Main image @PanthersIHC the Motorpoint Arena will host all the weekends playoff games.

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