Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Giants can’t rise to the challenge

By Stuart McKinley

Belfast Giants 2 Nottingham Panthers 1: (Panthers win 4-3 on aggregate): What is it with Challenge Cup finals at the Odyssey Arena?

Nine years ago the now defunct Ayr Scottish Eagles came across the Irish Sea and spoilt what was expected to be a march to the trophy for the Belfast Giants with a one-sided victory.

Since then the Giants won the competition when the second leg of the final was played at the Dundonald Ice Bowl, but last night back in the Titanic Quarter the Nottingham Panthers skated off with the trophy, stopping a home comeback in its tracks to retain the championship they won last year.

The Giants had stormed into a 2-0 lead on the night, but when Nottingham pulled a goal back in the second period their 3-1 win in last week's first leg was enough of a cushion for them to claim the title.

The trophy treble that the Giants had been aiming for just over a week ago has gone and with favours needed if they are going to win the league it looks like all energies will be put into retaining the Play-off title when that comes around in 10 days time.

The kitchen sink was spared, but the Giants threw just about everything else at the Panthers in the opening stages as they set about wiping out the two-goal deficit carried over from last week's first leg.

There was no time to waste in the pursuit of goals and the shots rained in on Craig Kowalski's net, Brett Hemingway's effort from the point and Brandon Benedict's attempt from right in front of the goaltender's crease being the closest the Giants came to getting the goal they needed.

If anything the chances that had come earlier looked easier than the one that brought about the opening goal on a powerplay in the ninth minute.

Colin Hemingway's shot from the left side looked ambitious, but the puck flew between the pads of Kowalski and the Odyssey started rocking.

Nottingham's advantage was cancelled out with less than three minutes of the first period to go. Michael Jacobsen skated onto the puck and sent his shot from the slot flying into the top shelf.

There was no doubt that the first period had belonged to the Giants and there could be little argument about Nottingham bossing the second.

Whether it was the Giants’ failure to get going again after such a high octane approach to the first period or the Panthers finally rousing from their slumber — or a mixture of both — it was hard to tell.

One thing's for sure though, Nottingham hadn't come all this way not to take the cup home with them.

Matt Myers rung Stephen Murphy's pipework a minute after the restart and a minute later only a great piece of goaltending kept David Beauregard's shot out of the net.

There was little Murphy could do when Jade Galbraith crashed the net as the midway point of the game approached and with lots of brute force, he forced the puck into the net.

It turned into a real fight for the cup after that.

Both teams had just three skaters on the ice at one stage, with almost as many in the penalty box as things got rather feisty.

Indeed it was a throwback to Giants versus Panthers matches of old.

It all came down to a final 20 minutes with the Giants needing a goal to take the game to overtime.

Kowalski proved unbeatable, though, despite there being no shortage of Giants attempts to beat him. Murphy was pulled with a full minute to go in favour of an extra skater and Nottingham were happy enough to send the puck the full length of the ice and concede icing calls.

And in the end that was enough for the Panthers to run down the clock and make the trophy their own.

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