Giants hit goal trail to seal place in Cup final
Belfast Giants 7 Nottingham Panthers 6
Belfast Giants fans were treated to a goal-fest as they watched the team book their place in next month's Challenge Cup final.
Leading 5-1 from the first leg in Nottingham last week, Giants coach Adam Keefe said before the game that he would be happy with a 1-0 win.
Instead he got a 7-6 victory and had to contend with the Panthers closing the aggregate gap to just a single goal during the second period before securing the win which sets up a final battle with the Cardiff Devils in their own backyard on Sunday, March 4, after they too scored seven to overcome the Sheffield Steelers.
Knowing that they needed to score early and often, the Panthers came out strongly and made the breakthrough after 4:43 when David Clarke netted off assists from Luke Pither and Mark Derlago.
That Giants responded and restored their four-goal advantage four minutes later when Brendan Connolly slipped the puck to Sebastien Sylvestre and he struck his shot high into the Nottingham net.
Connolly was involved again when the Giants took the lead on the night on a powerplay at 13:11. His shot was saved by Patrick Galbraith and Blair Riley was quickest to react as he slotted home the rebound to make it 7-2 on aggregate.
Rather than knock the stuffing out of the Panthers, that goal seemed to inspire them and within 70 seconds they had scored twice to give them some hope of a turnaround.
Mike Vaskivuo marked his Panthers debut in style when he deflected a Yann Sauve shot into the net at 13:36 and Clarke then grabbed his second of the night at 14:21 when he was again set up by Derlago.
A high sticking penalty against John Kurtz put Nottingham on only their second powerplay of the night in the early stages of the second period and they took full advantage when Zack Phillips produced a great finish to beat Chris Truehl, who was trusted with the Giants goaltending duties for the night.
Nottingham were on something of a roll, with three goals inside 10 minutes of play and they really shook things up when Alexander Mokshantsev set up Brett Perlini to give them a 5-2 lead on the night and brought them to within one goal on aggregate.
The Panthers then contributed to their own downfall, however, when Mathieu Gagnon was punished for tripping at 37:19 and 14 seconds into the powerplay David Rutherford set up Riley for his second of the night to ease the Giants' nerves and when Sylvestre got the end of his stick to Colin Shields' shot four seconds from the end of the second period to stretch the aggregate lead to three goals, it was a long way back for Nottingham
Shields netted himself after Connolly had chased down a loose puck and set him up at 41:16, levelling the score on the night level at 5-5, but more importantly making it 10-6 on aggregate.
Derlago finally got a goal of his own to give Nottingham some small hope at 49:05 and, when Sylvestre was sent to the penalty box less than a minute later, Panthers coach Corey Neilson decided to go for broke by pulling Galbraith and having five skaters on three - Ryan Martinelli and Sauve had taken their seats just before that for roughing,
The move failed to work as not once, but twice, Jonathan Ferland stole the puck and scored in the empty net - first at 50:40 and then again 59 seconds later to make sure of the win.