Belfast Giants take big stride in treble bid
Belfast Giants 5 Nottingham Panthers 2: The treble is well and truly on for the Belfast Giants.
After bagging the league title last month, the Giants now have one hand on the Challenge Cup after beating the Nottingham Panthers 5-2 in the first leg of the final at the Odyssey Arena last night.
They should really have scored more goals – the brilliance of Panthers goaltender Craig Kowalski preventing an even greater margin of victory, but only a dramatic turnaround can now stop Paul Adey's team from clinching the trophy in the National Ice Centre on Tuesday night.
And on this form nobody will want to face the Giants in the Play-offs.
Two first-period goals from Craig Peacock had the Giants firmly in the driving seat before a thrilling second period.
Jeffrey Szwez, Colin Shields and Darryl Lloyd scored for the Giants, with Robert Farmer and Jonathan Weaver netting to keep the Panthers in the tie by their fingernails.
The third period was scoreless, but it wasn't for the want of trying, with both teams really going for it – the Giants wanting to build an even bigger lead, while Nottingham tried to prevent themselves from having to undertake an uphill battle on Tuesday night.
The Panthers struggled to get a foothold in the game, but if Peacock's first goal, which came short-handed at 7:14, shocked the visitors, they were really rocked when he struck his second – this time on a powerplay – 49 seconds before the first break.
And when a great pass from Colin Shields sent Jeffrey Szwez one-on-one with Kowalski to make it 3-0 at 22:41, it looked like it was a matter of how big an advantage the Giants were going to take into the second leg.
Even when Nottingham hit back just over a minute later their goal was shrouded in controversy. Robert Farmer sent the puck over Stephen Murphy's shoulder from right beside the boards on the left, but the Giants players complained that not only had Jonathan Boxill impeded the goaltender, but the net had been knocked off its moorings.
The referee's verdict, however, was that the goal was legitimate.
The Giants' response couldn't have been better though as within 14 seconds Shields pounced to sweep the puck into the net after Szwez's shot had been blocked.
The level of intensity from the Giants was impressive, although it boiled over slightly when Jeff Mason was sent to the penalty box for slashing.
It didn't seem to matter though. If anything the Giants had more shots on goal in the two minutes than Nottingham and seconds after Mason stepped back onto the ice, he had one shot blocked before Darryl Lloyd smashed home the rebound.
Although Nottingham's response was swift – scoring within six seconds of going 5-1 down – the Giants again had cause for complaint. Referee Mike Hicks had got in the way of David Phillips as he attempted to skate round the boards with the puck and within a flash it was in the net, courtesy of Jonathan Weaver.
The Panthers were only too well aware that a three-goal deficit will leave them with a lot of work to do in the return leg and came out for the third period intent on cutting the arrears.
They not only found stubborn resistance from Murphy, but met with a Giants team only too willing to fight fire with fire.
Kowalski was having to throw himself to keep the puck out of his net, with Szwez, Shields, Lloyd and Kevin Saurette all coming close.