Nottingham Panthers 4 Belfast Giants 1: The Belfast Giants went to Nottingham dreaming of taking the second step toward a trophy treble, but ended up having a nightmare.
With a 5-2 advantage from the first leg at the Odyssey Arena last Friday, Paul Adey's team never got to grips with the game, let the lead slip and lost the Challenge Cup, which they appeared to have one hand on, to the Nottingham Panthers in a penalty shoot-out.
They will point to three powerplay goals from the Panthers as the key moments in the game.
The first two in the first period gave Nottingham a much needed shot of confidence, which just kept growing.
Although Jeff Mason scored to give the Giants a two-goal cushion in the tie, Eric Werner netted in the second period before another powerplay goal, this time from Matt Ryan, took the game to overtime.
The extra five minutes failed to separate the teams and after Jeffrey Szwez and Kevin Saurette missed their penalty shots, Petr Kalus scored to give Nottingham the prize, after Craig Peacock missed his opportunity to keep the Giants alive.
Right from the off the Panthers showed that they were determined to keep their grip on a trophy that they have now won five years in succession.
Needing to score at least three times to win the cup, they came out strongly and fired some early shots at Stephen Murphy.
That pressure paid off at 4:07 when the Panthers made the most of the first powerplay opportunity of the match, after the Giants had been punished for having too many men on the ice at a poor line change.
The puck was bouncing around in front of the Giants goal and Lynn Loyns pounced to send it high into the net past Murphy.
The Giants responded with some pressure of their own, but Mason's shot from distance was well wide of Craig Kowalski's goal and Saurette and Szwez – on a powerplay – both had shots saved.
The Panthers took full advantage of another powerplay as they doubled their lead on the night at 15:28.
Ryan pulled the puck out from behind the goal and fed Kalus, who found himself on his own in the slot and he fired home a sweet shot.
The Giants were rocking and Adey called a time-out immediately.
The best thing that happened for the Giants was the end of the first period and they came out for the second a much more settled team.
They were also the better team and the goal they deserved arrived at 26:53 when a great pass from Chris Higgins found Mason skating in at the back door to finish.
With the score at 6-4 on aggregate the next goal was going to be huge – and Nottingham got it.
Werner put the puck into the net at 35:28, but Murphy complained that he'd had possession of it.
The protests were brushed off by referee Tom Darnell, which brought a huge roar from the home fans in the 5,000 crowd.
The Giants still led on aggregate, but the momentum – and the confidence – was with the Panthers, who pounced on the powerplay again eight minutes into the third period to level the tie.
Werner played a part, feeding Ryan, and this time the home crowd were on their feet as they started to believe that the cup was staying in Nottingham – and it will, thanks to Kalus' decisive penalty shot.