Just Champion

Despite a 4-2 defeat for Nottingham Panthers, Cat’s Whiskers TV’s Jono Bullard reflects on a very positive start to the Champions Hockey League

Let’s be honest, even the most optimistic Panthers fan wouldn’t have expected us to come away from last night’s game with a victory. That’s not to pour cold water on the Panthers entry to the CHL, it is to do with the fact that our opponents Lukko Rauma of Finland could boast a line up of top quality players along with a player budget several times higher than that of Nottingham.

The game was much closer than most expected. Many (including me) felt that Lukko might run up a cricket score after racing into a 2-0 lead with barely 8 minutes on the clock. They were first to every puck and their passing & skating left the Panthers chasing shadows at times. Lukko looked every bit a side who had been training for a month prior to this game. Panthers started to come into the game after Lukko’s second and a power play opportunity saw the home side do everything but score and the period finished with the Finns holding a two goal advantage.

The second period was one that most in attendance won’t forget for a long time. A scramble around the net saw the puck come out to Steve Lee who wristed the puck into the net as Ryan Zapolski was prone in the Lukko net. Panthers had their tails up and another power play saw the equaliser as Lee grabbed his second with a superb one-time snapshot from point that the screened Zapolski never saw. The atmosphere in the NIC was electric as most of the 4,045 in attendance got behind the home side. At the other end Craig Kowalski was in great form in the Panthers net making some superb stops to keep the Panthers level at the second interval.

Whatever was said in the Lukko locker room during the interval seemed to get through to their roster as they took complete control of the final period. Jerry Ahtola pouncing on Steve Lee’s mistake to pull a lovely forehand backhand move on Kowalski. The scoring was completed just 3 minutes later as Canadian Aaron Gagnon scored on the powerplay. Lukko continued to dominate but couldn’t add to their four goals for a 4-2 final scoreline in favour of the Finnish side.

Panthers can take a lot of heart from the performance. Kowalski was excellent as usual and CHL signing Nathan Robinson always looked like making something happen when he was on the ice. The defence particularly impressed me, especially Evan Mosey who had a very assured game. For all that was said prior to the tournament about British players losing ice time to the imports it was ironic that both goals were scored by British defenceman Steve Lee. Rob Farmer & Rob Lachowicz both iced regular and special team shifts while Jonathan Boxill also saw some ice time. I felt that every player that iced for Panthers could hold their heads high, I didn’t feel that anyone had a particularly poor game. Highlights of the game can be found on this link.

As I sit here today all I can feel is an immense sense of pride in watching my team from this hockey backwater compete in a tournament that contains some of the best teams in Europe. OK, we lost, but we gave the Finns a scare and I’m sure they’ll be leaving Nottingham with a greater respect for the Panthers and the UK hockey as a whole. While Luleå of Sweden will provide another stiff test tomorrow, Panthers can take some confidence from competing with Lukko for 60 minutes. However, with the Swedes enjoying a 4-1 victory of the Freezers in Hamburg they come into the game with lots of momentum.

It’s not that long ago that we were playing games in a ramshackle (but wonderful and much loved) barn losing heavily to Streatham Redskins & Durham Wasps. If someone told me back then we would be in the premier European club competition in 2014 I would have laughed at them. However here we are, and while I would never want to lose our domestic rivalries, it was a great to see us play someone different and I’d welcome participation in the CHL if we qualify again. Last night showed how far we’ve come since we returned to the ice against Solihull in 1980, and that is something that every Panthers fan should be proud of.

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