After an excellent start to 2020 and some against the odds wins, Jono Bullard investigates if Panthers could possibly win this seasons EIHL title.
Go back to October and the mere thought of Nottingham Panthers lifting this seasons Elite League title would have been met with howls of derision. However an excellent run of form since the beginning of November has seen Panthers thrust themselves into the title race, a run which sees them yet to lose an Elite League game in 2020, the only EIHL team that can still claim that record.
Having said that, the Sheffield Steelers are still very much in the box seat seven points clear at the top. They have played 38 games though, four more than nearest challengers Cardiff & Nottingham but points on the board is often regarded as being much better than games in hand. The Steelers form has also been excellent of late, losing just two games in regulation since the beginning of December. The table below shows every EIHL clubs form since December 1st:
The table emphasises the task that Panthers have ahead of them to beat Steelers or Devils to the crown. However this is a very different style Nottingham side that we are seeing under the stewardship of Tim Wallace & Guillaume Doucet. They are a gritty, hardworking, battling team that keeps on going until the final hooter sounds (as Sunday’s victory in Fife proved). While wins in regulation are thin on the ground, the team are finding the energy and determination to secure all the points with six overtime/shoot-out victories out of six since December 1st.
Of course, there are challenges. Three imports, two of whom are defencemen, sit on the sidelines injured. With no indication how long they will be out for, or the possibility of replacements coming in, the squad has to guard against burning out. It must be said though, that worry has been expressed since returning from the Continental Cup Super Final, but still two wins have followed.
It’s fair to see that Panthers have flew under the radar with regards a title challenge, with most EIHL fans looking at Cardiff, Belfast & Sheffield. Personally I see this as an advantage as it takes the pressure off Panthers to just go along and keep accumulating results. Also, when you look at potential points available it puts a very different slant on the table, as shown below:
Of the other contenders, Sheffield also have the benefit of having just 16 league games left to play. A far less congested run in than both Panthers & Devils who both have 20 games to fit in, along with two legs of a Challenge cup semi-final (Sheffield have to play Glasgow in the second leg of their semi-final). Also the table is showing possible points that can be achieved and doesn’t take into account the games against each other.
Can Panthers win the title? I firmly believe that we can. Are they favourites? Absolutely not, Sheffield & Cardiff are but it’s still in our own hands at the moment, however with league games to come against Sheffield (2), Cardiff (3) & Belfast (3) it certainly won’t be easy, in fact it will be an incredible achievement if we do manage it. But manage it I think we can, I’ve already said that this team has a battling quality that has been lacking in previous rosters, but we do need to get bodies back from the treatment room or look at bringing in reinforcements if the injuries are long-term.
Whatever happens, it’s nice to still be in the race in January and this squad has massively exceeded the expectations I had coming into this season. Wallace & Doucet strengthened the squad and that has put us in this position after an indifferent start. Even if we don’t win the title I’m optimistic about the future as Wallace & Doucet appear to have instilled a different mentality around the club and I’m very excited about where they can take us. Maybe this season will prove too soon, but keep a core of this squad and I believe Panthers will continue to be contenders for seasons to come. They have re-ignited my passion for this club and for that I am truly grateful.