Belfast Giants reach Challenge Cup final after winning second leg over Nottingham Panthers
Belfast Giants 7 (12)
Nottingham Panthers 6 (7)
The Belfast Giants reached the final of the Challenge Cup with a 12-7 aggregate semi-final win over the Nottingham Panthers, winning the second leg 7-6 at the SSE Arena.
Leading 5-1 after last week’s first leg in Nottingham, the tie was in the balance for a long time in the first two periods, but with the visitors chasing the game late on, Adam Keefe’s men were able to pull away and take the win on the night.
They will now face either the defending champions the Cardiff Devils or the Sheffield Steelers in the final at Ice Arena Wales in Cardiff on Sunday March 4.
Nottingham went for Danish backstop Patrick Galbraith in net, while the Giants were forced into a late change as everyday man Jackson Whistle went down in the warm-up and had to be replaced by Chris Truehl.
Despite the stand-in netminder making several good saves to start the game, he was beaten early by the visitors, Mark Derlago going on the wraparound behind the net and his centre for David Clarke was snapped home low at 4:43.
Two quick replies from Belfast had them ahead though, the first seeing Sébastien Sylvestre roof the puck past Galbraith from the edge of the left circle at 8:46 before Blair Riley forced home a rebound at the crease at 13:11.
But immediate reply saw the Panthers level seconds later, debutant Mike Vaskivuo tipping Yann Sauvé’s shot in at the doorstep at 13:34, and they then took the lead when Clarke slammed home his second after Derlago found him unmarked at the backdoor at 14:21.
A breathless first period ended with crucial saves from both netminders, but it was Nottingham who broke out in the second period and added a fourth, Spiro Goulakos’ giveaway in the offensive zone setting Zack Phillips in on Truehl and the forward made no mistake at 23:31.
The chances kept coming for both sides, Truehl having to deflect away several efforts from all angles from Nottingham, while Colin Shields could not force the puck from out under his skates with the cage empty at the other end.
The nerves within the SSE Arena then really ramped up when the Panthers grabbed a fifth, Brett Perlini stabbing home the puck at the back door after the pass across the crease from Alexander Mokshantsev at 35:24.
But two late period goals from the Giants restored their three goal advantage heading into the final 20 minutes, Riley bagging his second at 37:33 when he one-timed David Rutherford’s centred pass, and then Sylvestre added his second with just four seconds of the period to go, deflecting Shields’ initial shot past the unfortunate Galbraith.
If the Panthers netminder was unfortunate for the fourth, he was culpable for Belfast’s fifth as he misplayed a puck behind the net at 41:16, which allowed Brendan Connolly to steal in and pull it back into the slot where the onrushing Shields slammed it into the empty goal.
There was more of a spark about Belfast in the third, or perhaps a lack of spark from the now deflated visitors, and Sylvestre was inches away from his hat-trick when a brilliant toe drag forced Galbraith into a big save five hole.
Cole Jarrett and Shields both saw chances go by for the Giants before Nottingham went back ahead on the night at 49:05, the hosts blocking several shots in front of goal before it finally fell to the lurking Derlago, who slid it into the goal.
Needing three more goals just to force overtime, Nottingham elected to pull Galbraith when they went on the powerplay with ten minutes to go, but that backfired immensely as Belfast killed off the tie with two empty netters, both from Jonathan Ferland, at 50:40 and 51:39.
With the hosts safely through, both sides were happy to coast through to the finish with neither netminder overly troubled as the game meandered to a close, and a delighted home support celebrated at the final buzzer.
Belfast Telegraph Digital