Miracles Can Happen…

Cat’s Whiskers TV presenter Jono Bullard gives his own view of Panthers incredible Challenge Cup comeback.
Photographs (c) Katie Chadburn

Tuesday 25th March 2014. That date will now be ingrained on the mind of every Panthers fan after our fifth Challenge Cup victory in a row, the seventh overall and arguably the sweetest of all of them.

The enormity of the task was clear to see. The runaway league champions Belfast Giants held a three goal advantage from Friday’s first-leg at the Odyssey Arena. Panthers not only had to claw back that deficit, but also had to do it against a side that won the league by 23 points, had only been beaten by more than 3 goals three times all season & had only lost 6 times away from home all season. The odds were stacked heavily in Belfast Giants favour.

Aaron & I said on the show this week that getting the first goal would be massively important and so it proved to be as Lynn Loyns slotted home on the powerplay. It was a pivotal moment so early on as the Panthers increased momentum & intensity, highlighted perfectly by a huge check on Calvin Elfring by Leigh Salters, and grabbed a second PP goal from Petr Kalus to move within one on aggregate.

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Paul Adey called an excellent time-out to calm the Giants down and they started to come back into the game. When Jeff Mason scored in the second period I thought that might be it for us, we were starting to look tired and Belfast were starting to turn the screw, however a fortuitous rebound saw Eric Werner tap into an empty net for 3-1 and Panthers found a second wind. When Matt Ryan equalised on aggregate early in the third the NIC erupted and finally it looked like we could pull off a miracle. No further scoring meant OT then the lottery of penalties. Thankfully, our numbers came up and the miracle was complete, Challenge Cup champions for the fifth season in a row.
The celebrations were incredible. Our group of four in Block 13 whopped, hollered & hugged. To say we went a little bit mad is an understatement! We had pulled off a miracle and it would be a night to remember, like the B&H semi-final against Manchester Storm in 1998, Kim Ahlroos at 60.53 in 2004 & winning the league at the Odyssey Arena last season. This was a special night and it will be etched in Panthers folklore for many a season to come.

A few words for the Belfast Giants. They have been nothing short of magnificent this season and have fully deserved all the plaudits that have come their way, we thankfully caught them on a night when they were ordinary. Don’t let anyone say that this is a ‘Mickey Mouse’ trophy either, the disappointment etched on every Giants players face told its own story, they were crestfallen and I would expect to see a backlash from them as we enter the play-offs.

The jubilant Panthers team collected their medals and captain David Clarke lifted aloft the Challenge Cup in his testimonial season, his 11th trophy as a Panthers player.

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Let’s be honest, it’s not been a great season but everything we’ve had to endure was made up for in 65 minutes + penalties. It was the most unlikely of victories but carries on a golden era of Panthers hockey. Last night was our 12th trophy of the Elite League era, the 9th in Corey Neilson’s reign as coach which sees him equal as many trophies in the modern era as all our previous coaches combined.
As a fan I truly appreciate what he has achieved, especially when I remember some barren, trophy-less seasons when you wondered if we would ever win one again. It really is the feast after the famine.
Congratulations once again to Corey Neilson, Rick Strachan, the players & staff of the Nottingham Panthers. Challenge Cup Champions for the fifth season in a row, an outstanding achievement.

As a footnote I was driving to work this morning when ‘One Day Like This’ by Elbow came on the radio. I smiled to myself as it was so appropriate…
“Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will see me right”

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