Belfast Giants gain slender first leg lead over Panthers
Belfast Giants 4 Nottingham Panthers 3
Adam Keefe’s Belfast Giants will take a one-goal lead to the National Ice Centre on Sunday after they won the first leg of their play-off quarter-final with the Nottingham Panthers 4-3 at the SSE Arena.
The English side fought back after Belfast began the game with three unanswered goals, but the hosts held on to the bitter end to ensure they do hold the advantage heading into the second leg.
The match saw a return to the line-up for Giants starter Jackson Whistle, while Nottingham started Danish stopper Patrick Galbraith between the pipes at the other end.
A nervy start saw Whistle tested by David Clarke’s wrist shot before Brandon Benedict flashed a slapshot wide, and it was the hosts who took the lead at 9:11 when Tim Billingsley’s attempted pass hit Darcy Murphy and the Belfast forward took it to the goal and finished low.
That lead quickly became two when the Giants’ powerplay team came to the fore, Steve Lee going to the box for holding and David Rutherford roofed a rebound from the angle at at 10:21 after Galbraith saved Blair Riley’s initial tip in front.
And at 13:16 the powerplay paid off again for the home side, Raphaël Bussières the man in the box for cross checking, and when the puck came to Colin Shields at the top of the right circle he cannoned a slapshot over Galbraith’s stick side.
Kevin Raine should have netted when he was found in space only for Galbraith to make a great kick save, and Nottingham capitalised on the miss when they hit back at 19:53, Whistle unable to handle an Erik Lindhagen shot and David Clarke stabbed in the loose puck at the back door.
It took the visitors just 38 seconds of the second period to add their second, the Panthers bursting out of the blocks buoyed by that late goal in the first and, after Whistle had been tested a couple of times, Mark Derlago diverted in Yann Sauvé’s pass to the crease.
Belfast were still in the ascendancy though, and Darcy Murphy rattled the iron after a giveaway from the Panthers in centre ice, while at the other end Whistle got down low to deny Alexander Mokshantsev five hole.
Galbraith then made an outstanding post to post save to keep it a one goal game, but the two goal lead was deservedly restored at 32:34, John Kurtz firing on goal from the slot and it took a wicked deflection past the unsighted, and unfortunate, netminder.
Again it was the Giants who were on top in the third period, and the Panthers had to survive a video review when Murphy tried to backhand it past Galbraith and the goaltender looked to have potentially dragged it over the line, only for the video to confirm he hadn’t.
Instead, Nottingham reduced the deficit to one again at 48:15, Raphaël Bussières showing his strength to win a puck battle to send Lindhagen down the boards and his pull back to Clarke allowed the veteran forward to slam home his second of the game.
Whistle then made a stunning stop to deny the excellent Pither at the crease when he and Robert Lachowicz went on a breakaway, and Galbraith had to kick save a Riley tip out in front, but ultimately neither side could find another goal leaving this tie delicately poised heading to Sunday.
Man of the Match: John Kurtz (Belfast Giants)
Belfast Telegraph Digital