Belfast Giants 4 Nottingham Panthers 3
A determined fightback from the Nottingham Panthers has left their Play-off quarter-final with the Belfast Giants on a knife-edge ahead of tomorrow night's second-leg clash at the National Ice Centre.
Despite leading 3-0 with just seconds of the first period to go - with the goals packed into a four-minute spell - the Giants take just a slender one-goal advantage into the return leg after a stirring response from a Panthers team determined to give coach Corey Neilson a big send off.
Goals from Darcy Murphy, David Rutherford and Colin Shields looked to have put the Giants into a comfortable position, but two strikes from Dave Clarke and one from Mark Derlago - Clarke's second coming after John Kurtz had struck for the Giants - mean that Adam Keefe's men still have work to do in order to book a return trip to Nottingham next weekend.
After a tense opening to the game, the Giants took the lead at 9:11. Blair Riley tried to send Murphy through on goal, but instead his pass went to Tim Billingsley. The Nottingham defenceman failed to clear his zone as he only managed to send the puck into Murphy's skate. He took full advantage of the error and after steadying himself fired home with a first-time shot.
After waiting nine minutes for the first goal, the second arrived just 71 seconds later.
Rutherford skated in from the left, got a return pass from Riley and after his initial shot was stopped by Patrick Galbraith's pads he sent the rebound into the net from a tight angle.
The third goal came on a powerplay, with the only surprise being that it took so long for the Giants to make their numerical advantage pay off.
Galbraith had already made a couple of big stops to keep the deficit at two goals before Sebastien Sylvestre pulled the puck back to Spiro Goulakos on the left, who sent it square across the blueline to Shields. He let fly with an arrow of a shot that flew into the top left corner of the net.
Just when it looked like the Giants would take a three-goal lead into the break, the Panthers got themselves a foothold in the game seven seconds before the buzzer.
Erik Lindhagen's shot from wide on the right was stopped by Jackson Whistle, but Clarke was there to force home the rebound.
The Panthers looked like they were about to claw their way back into the game when they scored again after only 38 seconds of the second period.
Steve Lee's shot was saved and Luke Pither was denied by a post on the rebound, but when the puck came back to him a second time he slid it into the middle where Derlago finished.
A few minutes later, Murphy managed to hit the post at the other end as he fell to the ice before the Giants hit their fourth at 32:34.
The goal owed a lot to the tenacity of Sylvestre, who despite losing his footing managed to set the puck on the stick of Kurtz. He skated onto it and let fly with a shot that seemed to hit Jonathan Ferland before crossing the line, but it was Kurtz who was credited with the goal.
Murphy was inches away from scoring a fifth for the Giants on a breakaway early in the third period. The officials went to a video review to make sure the puck hadn't crossed the line when it got stuck under Galbraith's body.
Rather than the Giants opening up a three-goal lead, the Panthers cut the gap to just one 12 minutes from time.
Raphael Bussieres dug the puck out from the boards on the right while flat out and there was a large slice of good fortune when Lindhagen's shot hit Kevin Raine's shin and rebounded for Clarke, who crashed it past Whistle.