Belfast Giants hit with large dose of play-off pain
Nottingham Panthers 5 Belfast Giants 3
A heartbreaking overtime defeat to the Nottingham Panthers has killed off the Belfast Giants' Play-off hopes - and brought a premature end to their season.
The Giants led 4-3 going into the second leg of the quarter-final tie, but it is the Panthers who will play on their home ice in the Final Four weekend after matching the first-leg scoreline before netting the winner in overtime.
What will make the defeat even harder for Giants coach Adam Keefe and his players to take is the fact that they took an early two-goal lead on the night, putting them 6-3 ahead on aggregate.
Four unanswered goals saw the Panthers take the lead in the tie for the first time with less five minutes to go. Jim Vandermeer scored to take the game into overtime and, with a penalty shoot-out looming, Dan Spang struck with just 26 seconds left.
The visitors made a superb start, scoring twice in 19 seconds with the game just over three minutes old.
An early hooking call against Spang put the Giants on a powerplay and, 20 seconds before it was due to end, Jonathan Ferland netted from Vandermeer's assist.
Before the Panthers could settle, the Giants had scored again. Kevin Raine hadn't scored all season, but he saved his first for the big occasion when he made it 2-0 on the night and 6-3 overall.
The Giants were a whisker away from making it 3-0 soon after when they were denied by the pipework and may ultimately reflect on that particular moment as being costly.
Three minutes into the second period, the Panthers grabbed a lifeline when Luke Pither's pass took Jackson Whistle out of the play and Mark Derlago finished.
That lifted the hosts and when they had Robert Farmer sent to the penalty box, they overturned the numerical disadvantage to level on the night through Evan Mosey on 34:58.
Eighty nine seconds into the third period the Panthers went one step further, taking the lead in the game and levelling the tie overall when Brett Perlini struck from the tightest of angles.
The momentum was with the Nottingham side, leading to Keefe calling his timeout in an attempt to rally his troops.
A powerplay for the Panthers after a tripping call on Ryan Martinelli led to them taking the lead in the tie for the first time, with Yann Sauve firing home a powerful shot from the blueline at 55:16.
The Giants reacted quickly though, levelling things up just 30 seconds later with a shot from Vandermeer that was deflected past Patrick Galbraith.
That meant overtime and Galbraith was called upon to make a big save from Sebastien Sylvestre before a delayed penalty call gave the Panthers an extra skater and Spang struck to spark celebrations among the home fans and leave the Giants crushed.