Winning cup will be giant challenge
Challenge Cup Final first leg: Belfast Giants 1-5 Nottingham
The Belfast Giants' treble hopes were left lying in tatters last night as the Nottingham Panthers put one hand on the Challenge Cup.
Doug Christiansen's team took stage fright at the Odyssey Arena as they produced a flat performance just when they needed to step up to the plate with silverware at stake.
Instead of coming out of the blocks flying, the Giants found themselves 4-0 down and although Jeff Mason's third period goal might have thrown them something of a lifeline, David Clarke scored a fifth for Nottingham with just a second left on the clock to make a comeback more than unlikely.
The Giants are still way out in front in the Elite League title race — victories in the next three games will be enough to clinch it — but in truth they played nothing like champions last night.
There wasn't much between the teams during the opening stages of the game, but Nottingham grabbed the initiative at 11:05 when former Giant Brandon Benedict opened the scoring and they never relinquished their grip.
No penalties were called in the opening 17 minutes of the game, but then two Nottingham players were sent to the box in the space of 25 seconds, giving the Giants the chance to level on a five-on-three powerplay.
Captain Jeremy Rebek, Robert Dowd and Jon Pelle all fired shots at Craig Kowalski, but they failed to capitalise on the two-man advantage, much to the frustration of the home fans.
The Giants did get the puck into the net two minutes from the end of the first period.
The light went on, but Craig Peacock's goal was ruled out, seemingly because the goal had been knocked off its moorings in the midst of a scramble.
The jeers that greeted the end-of-period hooter were more aimed at the decision of referee Tom Darnell rather than the Giants' performance, but things didn't get any better during the second period.
The second and third goals came in quick succession as Nottingham built up a solid lead in the two-legged tie.
The first came after a Giants attack was broken down and Brock Wilson broke through to score at 31:57.
Giants goaltender Stephen Murphy pulled off a big save almost immediately after the face-off, but there was a gap of just 13 seconds between the Panthers goals, with Matt Francis netting after Murphy had saved from Rhett Gordon.
There was still some hope for the Giants and they came close to pulling a goal back when a rebound from Peacock's shot went just past the end of Robert Dowd's stick.
That hope was wrecked just a couple of minutes into the third period when David Beauregard struck on the powerplay while Mike Hoffman sat in the box.
Another Giants powerplay failed and it was almost made worse as Matt Myers picked up the puck after stepping out of the penalty box and forced a great save from Murphy on a breakaway.
Mason's goal with seven minutes to go looked like it could send the Giants to Nottingham with some chance of pulling off a marvellous comeback victory.
But after Dowd was sent to the penalty box with a couple of seconds left on the clock Clarke struck just before the hooter to give the Belfast Giants a mountain to climb in next Tuesday's second leg.
It’s a challenge that is not beyond Christiansen’s team but really it is the Panthers’ trophy to lose now.
Last night’s hammering brings this weekend’s league double header away to Edinburgh Capitals into sharp focus.
It’s crucial that the Giants get back on track in Scotland on Saturday and Sunday in order to edge closer to title success.
Christiansen will demand nothing less.