Nottingham Panthers v Belfast Giants: All you need to know
Coming off back-to-back wins over the Sheffield Steelers, the big games continue to come thick and fast for the Belfast Giants as they travel to Nottingham to face the Panthers in a midweek Elite League clash.
It's another meeting with an Erhardt Conference rival, and it'll be a tough test for Adam Keefe’s men against a side who have impressed early in their campaign both in Europe and domestically.
Although they come into tonight’s clash off the back of a difficult weekend - a penalty shots win over Guildford and a home loss to Braehead - the Panthers will be eager to return to winning ways.
Their CHL wins against Czech side Mountfield HK and Swiss outfit SC Bern - two sides from leagues considered superior to the EIHL - are proof that head coach Corey Neilson has assembled a strong roster for the season ahead.
Belfast’s injury depleted roster will have to compete with both the travel and their quality opposition, but this is a chance for another big road win that would already put them in an impressive position in the Elite League.
Last time they met
Belfast Giants 5-2 Nottingham Panthers (Elite League, SSE Arena, 12/3/17)
With the Giants in hot pursuit of the Cardiff Devils at the top of the Elite League towards the end of last season, the Panthers rolled into town for a two game series that Belfast needed to win.
Derrick Walser’s side took the first game 7-3 on the Friday night, before completing the four point weekend on the Sunday thanks to a David Rutherford hat-trick.
Nottingham took a first period lead through Jeff Brown, but Rutherford and Colin Shields both scored in the second period to give the hosts the lead.
Rutherford struck again to start the third period, quickly followed by a shorthanded goal from Blair Riley before Dan Spang replied again for the Panthers, only for Rutherford to wrap up his hat-trick and the win with five minutes to go.
With Stephen Murphy now out injured, Jackson Whistle (3-1, 2.62, .912) is set to take over the bulk of the netminding duties starting tonight at the National Ice Arena. Whistle played the final five minutes on Sunday against Sheffield, making five saves in a no decision, but he did pick up the win against the Steelers on Saturday, making 29 saves on 30 shots.
Opposing him will be 34-year old Canadian goaltender Michael Garnett (6-3, 3.11, .897) who joined over the summer after nine years in the Kontinental Hockey League. A former NHL goalie with the Atlanta Thrashers, Garnett took over full-time duties when Eduard Zakharchenko’s move to Nottingham fell through. Garnett made 29 saves on 31 shots in Sunday’s win over Guildford.
Players to watch
Forward Brendan Connolly is in good form for the Giants, notching six points (1G, 5A) in his last four games. The 32-year old Canadian, who joined over the summer, has been one of Belfast’s unsung stars in the opening few games of the campaign, and his presence on the special teams has been a big reason for their success thus far.
A key player to the Panthers’ success in the Champions Hockey League has been forward Josh Shalla, the Ontario native scoring four goals and an assist in their four European matches. He's gone on to add a goal and five assists in their six domestic games, adding up to 11 points on the season, and he's going to be their main man.
Keys to victory
Same again: Sunday’s shutout in Sheffield was an outstanding defensive performance, with the the Giants’ defensemen impressive on puck clearance and exiting their own zone. Replicating that kind of intensity will take them a long way.
Remain disciplined: 8-for-8 on the penalty kill was nothing short of exceptional on Sunday, but they won't hold out forever. Limiting the penalties and the Panthers’ chances with the extra man will help.
Stay patient: This team are strong offensively but the resolute Nottingham defense will frustrate them, with new arrival Yann Sauvé a big part of that. The key is for Belfast to wait for their chances and not try to force the issue.
What they said
Belfast Giants netminder Jackson Whistle: “I thought the whole team performed really well (against Sheffield) and we're starting to come together really well. Games like (Nottingham) are the ones we want to play, they force you to raise your game a level. I'm excited for it and I know the team are as well.”
Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe: “It needs to be a dirty road win. We're not going there to impress their fans, we're going to try and get the cheap points and get out of there, doesn't matter how you do it.”
Nottingham Panthers head coach Corey Neilson: “Belfast had our number last season, but that was then. We're creating chances, we just need to start putting them away. It's going to be a great game."
After hurting his shoulder against Sheffield, Stephen Murphy has been ruled out for a few weeks and will step down in order to recover from his injury, meaning Andrew Dickson will be included in the roster as backup netminder for the first time this season.
In the skaters, forward Dustin Johner is also out for a few weeks through injury while there will be a late fitness check on defenseman Jim Vandermeer.
Defensemen Cole Jarrett also won't feature after being given a two game ban for checking from behind against Sheffield on Sunday.
How can I watch it?
The Nottingham Panthers webcast is available at www.nottinghampanthers.tv.
Belfast Telegraph Digital