Früh & Far Between

Panthers make the play-off finals weekend and Paul Balm gives his thoughts on an incredible comeback and the festivities to come

I didn’t think I’d be writing an article this week. I thought that, by now, the Panthers’ season would be over and instead of writing about multiple comebacks, the playoffs and dilemmas I’d be sitting down to write my end of season review.

I don’t feel embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t have enough faith in this team. It doesn’t really bother me that I didn’t think they’d make the playoffs. I suppose it should, but it doesn’t. I, and I don’t think I’m the only one, have had my disagreements with this team over the season. I’ve loved them, been embarrassed by them and been downright angry with them over the last few months. I’d like to think I’ve had just cause every time as well. It’s very easy to justify the times that I’ve loved them, I don’t really need to explain why I felt that way after the CHL games and similarly I don’t really think I need to explain the anger or the embarrassment, I’m sure you’ve all had similar moments over the last few months.

I felt similar emotions during the playoff quarter finals. 3-0 down in the first period of both games (essentially at least) left me doubting this team for yet another time. I’m still not sure how we pulled it back. I’ve watched the highlights from Belfast and felt embarrassed at what I was watching. I was happy with the way it ended up but just think how much better, how much less nerve jangling Sunday would have been if we hadn’t given up those early goals on Friday (or Sunday). Panthers have to stop giving up those early goals. We’ve gone behind to at least one goal before we score in all of our last five games, we keep doing that and we’ll be in the 3rd/4th farce. Being the comeback kids is great but not having to make a comeback is better.

If I’ve been critical of the team then I’ve got to give credit where it’s due as well. I wasn’t sure the team could come back from a three goal deficit again on Sunday but I did feel that there was a goal or two in the way that the team was playing. You can’t take anything away from Belfast, they came to play and they helped to create what turned out to be a brilliant game (well, a brilliant last two and a bit periods). That was probably the best we’ve seen since the CHL games, both in terms of the Panthers’ attitude and the crowd. One statistic that came out of the game (thanks Tina) was that Panthers scored a 5 on 5 goal, shorthanded (I still don’t get what Vandermeer was moaning about and I’ve watched that Mosey goal about two dozen times now), a goal on a delayed penalty, a powerplay goal and a 3 on 3 overtime goal. The only thing missing was a double powerplay goal and we never even looked close to scoring one of those.

I mentioned the crowd there and I want to pay tribute to them because I thought we were tremendous. We’ve been much maligned in the past for being quiet and not getting behind the team and maybe people have had a point, but not on Sunday night. The only time we were subdued was when Belfast went two up knocking some of the wind out of our sails. We saw the good side of the vicious circle that exists between fans and teams, in Nottingham at least, as the fans reacted to the play and the players reacted to the fans. If you weren’t there just watch the highlights and you’ll see what I mean. When Brett Perlini made it 3-2 there’s a note of urgency and relief in the way the crowd reacts. We’d come back from being three goals down and levelled it the voices seem to say, ‘we couldn’t could we?’

When Yann Sauve drove the puck past Jackson Whistle it sounds like the roof has come off the NIC. It felt like that at the time. There are times when you just go mad in the stands (for a good reason for once) and that was one of them. I’ve seen a tweet from a Belfast fan since then who was making a jibe that we were acting like we’d won the Stanley Cup and for those thirty seconds we felt like we had (the only thirty seconds of the whole tie that we were in the lead by the way). We might have looked a bit daft when they scored almost immediately but for that short period of time we felt like kings (or queens).

I’m not sure 3 on 3 over time and penalties is the way to settle a playoff game but there’s got to be a winner and when you get down to sudden death it’s basically who makes the first mistake. Belfast will think they should have won it but for a brilliant stop from Patrick Galbraith, who had an exceptional game, apart from a slip up he’ll probably have nightmares about for weeks that led to the second goal. He wasn’t the only netminder to have a stellar performance, Jackson Whistle made the only save I’ve ever seen get shown from three separate angles on a Panthers highlights show. I don’t think anyone would have chosen Dan Spang as the scorer of the game winning goal on Sunday but up he stepped and slotted the puck home with what looked like a coolness he probably didn’t feel.

We are going to the finals! You could see what it meant to the team as they all piled on to the ice to congratulate each other. That type of excitement and joy is what I’ve wanted to see in this team for weeks. An attitude that says we’re not going to be beaten and we’re going to keep trying. I’ve not seen it enough of late and, like I said, it was so good to see.

So, we’re going to the finals and that means that everything changes. The time has gone to criticize and moan about the team (it’ll be back soon enough don’t worry). We’ve all got our doubts and reservations, there are players I’d happily never see again after Sunday but that doesn’t mean that the last place I want to see them isn’t on that balcony. We have to roar our team on. It isn’t going to be easy. There’s going to be two teams in our way. We as fans have to get behind the team, shout their names from the rooftop and make noise. You can guarantee the Sheffield fans will be doing that on Saturday and don’t forget they’ll have the perceived injustice of home advantage and dressing rooms etc to drive them on.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily ready to love this team the way I did after the CHL games. I don’t think I ever will. Too much or maybe too little has happened for that to ever happen again but winning a trophy would certainly go a long way towards it.

There’s another angle to consider as well. David Clarke and Corey Neilson get another two games at the Panthers. Do the rest of the team really want their last games in Panthers colours to be the 3rd /4th farce? I know I don’t. I’m not expecting the fairy tale ending as Clarke cruises in with only seconds remaining in the final to blast the game winning goal past the opposite keeper. This isn’t Hollywood, this is Nottingham and these things just don’t happen that way very often. The Sunday morning fixture just isn’t the right place for Panthers careers like theirs to end.

Being in the playoffs isn’t all good though. It does leave me with something of a dilemma. My avid reader might remember I had a bit of a problem over which shirt to wear back in 2016. You can read about it here: but basically the jist of it is that I have a superstition that I don’t wear anything the same colour as the opposition, we were playing Fife and my playoff shirt is blue and yellow and therefore a no go. The Nottingham Lions very graciously gave me an old game worn shirt to wear and, as you probably don’t need to check Elite prospects to remember, we won the trophy.

This is where my problem lies. Do I go back to the old tried and tested Summum Chiefs shirt that I’ve watched every other Panther playoff win since 2009 or do I stick with the Lions shirt that’s not been worn since the 2016 playoffs so it could still be seen as a “lucky” shirt. I know deep down that what I wear has absolutely no effect on the game I’ll be watching but if I don’t make the right decision then there’ll be a little niggle all weekend that, if it goes wrong, was in some way caused by me not wearing the right shirt. Which do I choose? Send your (helpful) suggestions to @catswhiskerstv on Twitter and I promise that if it goes wrong I won’t blame you all for making me wear the wrong shirt.

That’s all for now so if you’re not coming over to the playoffs then make sure you watch the final on the BBC website, lets show those in charge of such things the size of the market that there is for ice hockey in this country. The EIHL don’t seem that great at it (although they did get the final on the BBC I suppose) so it’s down to us fans to do it. If you are coming to Nottingham have a safe journey (even if like me you’re only catching a bus), have a great time and if you happen to see me in Bunkers mine’s a can of Früh.

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