Turku to the Limit

Paul Balm with his own take on another historic CHL night for Nottingham Panthers…

I couldn’t have written this last night. I wouldn’t have been able to do what happened justice. I’m not sure I can now but it’s starting to sink in and I want to give it a try while it’s still fresh in the mind (like we’re ever going to forget it).

I wasn’t nervous before last night’s match. That could be down to the fact that I was working until 6pm and didn’t have much, if any time to think about the game or it could be that leaving work at 6:04 (I checked) I then had to rush to the arena so didn’t have much time to think about anything other than making the face-off. It could be those but I don’t think it was. I think it’s got more to do with the fact that I wasn’t really expecting anything out of the game.

I’ve been the same throughout the whole CHL schedule. I doubt many of us expected anything coming in to that first game against Bern back in late August. We’d looked at the teams and thought we might pick up a game here or (more unlikely) there but qualify from the group? No chance. Even when we were one win away from qualifying I looked at the game as an experience more than a realistic opportunity. So, I wasn’t nervous simply because I didn’t think there was anything realistic to be nervous for (not about, that’s completely different). If we lost, so what? We could hold our heads up high. If we won well, on we went.

What a game that it was. Make no mistake Turku came to play and play they did. They drove Panthers back time and time again with their speed and guile. Whatever they threw at us we matched. They tried to bring a toughness to their game but we showed them that we weren’t going to back down. From front to back everyone stood up to them. Henrik Tallinder might have over 700 games in the NHL but that didn’t stop Robert Farmer doing his best to get under his skin, giving him what looked like a few words of “advice” as he was sent to the bench to adjust his kit. I’m not sure it helped his mood much as it seemed to go downhill throughout the game but it certainly added to the entertainment. We had our chances in the first period as well and there were signs that when we got to play some attacking ice hockey we could and would do it.

I still felt lucky going into the interval at 0-0. There are so many statistics produced for games these days and some people thrive on them (I know, I’m one) but there’s really only one that counts – the score. Some will tell you it never lies and maybe it doesn’t (at least most of the time, we’ve all seen games pivot on a fluke goal) but it doesn’t tell you the whole truth either. That’s where those other stats come in. They add a layer of context to the starkness of the scoreline. Yes it was 0-0 but they had three times as many shots and that adds to the picture. Yes, they dominated the play, yes there were times when it was like a powerplay.

The second period? Well it was exactly the same as the first in most ways. There were times when it wasn’t pretty, times when the defending had to be desperate but there were also moments when it was achingly beautiful.

Games are an hour long but they can change in a minute. Momentum, that most fickle of friends can shift in a second. That’s what happened last night. It might have taken 82 seconds rather than one but the effect was the same.

Shalla scored. You’ve seen the highlights (no? watch them now) so I don’t need to describe how he took the puck from Perlini and stick handled it under the Turku keeper. A great goal. A goal that will stick in the memory for me simply because I fell over as I jumped up when it went it. As my legs pushed me upwards towards the vertical my feet decided they move horizontally as they slipped forward causing me to lose balance and flop back into my (fortunately still horizontal) seat. Undeterred I tried again and this time it worked and I was up with the rest of the crowd celebrating.

We were a goal up. This was good, this was OK, they score and we’re not losing. 82 seconds later it got better in every way. I can’t just let you watch the video this time I have to try and do it justice. Alexander Mokshantsev breaks across the blue line from the left, throws a little fake to shake off the defenceman then round the net to see the netminder on his knees and fire home from the tightest of angles to hit the smallest of gaps, a gap many could spot but how many could hit? Ecstasy, elation, euphoria all felt in that single moment. There might only have been 4,499 fans in the building but the roar as that went in! It was beautiful. It may not be considered as conventional beauty but it was to those that witnessed it. Meaning and context may add to that beauty, I don’t know, I’m unashamedly biased but there’s nothing ever created by any painter or sculpture that can make me feel how I felt in that moment.

Ah, feelings. The momentum had changed but so had how I felt about the game. The nerves, so absent for so much of the game, kicked in during the second interval. The situation had changed. We were now in a position to win this. We could qualify! That changed everything. I was jittery, I felt like I couldn’t sit or stand still. I had to go for a walk through the crowds on my own. I only ever do that in play-off finals.

The third period felt like a siege at times. I knew they were going to throw everything at us and they did. There were times when it felt like a siege, times when it felt like the only way we would be able to change lines would be if we got a whistle and that would almost certainly mean a penalty, save or, heaven forbid, a goal. What we got was a display of defending as resolute as any I have possibly ever seen.

Then Turku scored. Bugger! But hang on! Wait, it’s not been given. Step forward Evan Mosey, the check you threw to push their player off-side (whether he was or not is called into question by the highlights, strange it’s the only slo-mo bit in the whole video) swung the game again. You could see the goal not being given deflate them all over again. Could we? Really?

It was no easy journey through those last minutes. We had no time out left – Corey had wisely used it to help a line that had been on the ice for what felt like a minute recover from an icing call – Turku did. The netminder was pulled and then with about a minute to go Sauve took a penalty. A minute of 6 on 4 could kill us. Then we realised it was a 2+2 which meant even if they scored it would still be 6 on 4. Had momentum deserted us at the last moment? It was tense. Really tense.

There was time for more desperate defence and more last ditch saves from Michael Garnett. The clock ticked slowly, inexorably, towards zero and, as the saying goes, the crowd went wild. The team poured over the boards to mob Garnett who stood with his arms raised in salute (he’d been dancing a few seconds earlier when we dumped the puck out the zone). We’d won! We were in the knockout stages of the Champions Hockey League.

We’ll gloss over the man of the match awards. Did Shalla mis-hear? Was Garnett messing about? I thought the latter but have been told the former. Who cares? Who ever had to pick must have had one heck of a decision on their hands. The whole team was magnificent. The team blocked 19 shots last night. 19. That’s more than we got on net. Hockey’s a team game and we played as a team. That’s what won us that game. We were a team that never gave up.

The crowd was magnificent as well. Noisy all night, backing the team every minute of the game. I hope we can continue that for as long as we stay in the competition and beyond. Every single person in there was there because they wanted to be. There was nobody there who saw it as just a night out. No one spent more time talking to their friends than they did watching. It showed. You could hear it in the noise, see it in the attentive faces. It was one of those games where you clapped every save, every shift, anything.

And you know what? I loved every minute of it.

Only sport can give you nights like this. No book, film, TV programme, whatever can give you those moments of pure adrenalin, elation, fear, I could go on adding words but you know what I’m talking about and you know why.

The Nottingham Panthers are in the knockout stages of the Champions Hockey League.

I said when I started this that it has started to sink in. I’m not sure it has. Writing that sentence again has brought it all back. We get to go through it all again at the end of October. Who knows what will happen. The odds are stacked against us, no one can deny that, we’ll probably lose but we’re there and right now that seems a pretty big thing to me.

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