EIHL – The Challenge Cup – Match Reports
The Challenge Cup may well have been named the Panthers Cup, given that the Nottingham Panthers have won it seven times, and for the last five years. In a change to the format of previous seasons, the Final was to be one game, rather than the aggregate home and away matches of old.
The Final was set for the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield on March 8th.
The Panthers looked like they were looking to extend their winning streak when they won the first leg of the semi-finals, outplaying the Sheffield Steelers at the Motorpoint Arena to win 3-1.
The second leg in Nottingham turned out to be somewhat of a classic, and would have served as a worthy final. Sheffield headed to Nottingham needing to win by three goals after their defeat on home ice. They also needed a netminder. Starting goaltender Frank Doyle had already been ruled out earlier in the season. Jeff Woolhouse managed one game for the Steelers before another injury set-back. American Josh Unice, drafted in from Slovakia to cover for Doyle and Woolhouse, was also unable to play after being injured in the previous league game. With three goaltenders down, Sheffield turned to EPIHL team Telford Tigers and, with permission, loaned Nottingham native and sometime Panthers player Sam Gospel.
Heading into Nottingham with a loaned goaltender who had never played with the team, and needing to win by 3 goals seemed like a tall order. Under six minutes into the game and the Steelers had the three goals they needed, and it seemed like the tall order was achievable. After the initial shock of three goals in just over a minute, Nottingham struck back in the second period with three goals of their own, and it was back to square one for the Steelers.
The third period started with a quick goal from the Steelers. When the Panthers struck back with a shorthanded goal a few minutes later, the Steelers managed to find the opposition net on the same power play to bring them back within one goal. With just over four minutes left in the game, Robert Dowd found the back of the Panthers net to bring the tally on the night to 6-4 (7-7). It was a tense end to regulation, with neither side willing to give up the last goal. It stayed that way throughout overtime, sending the game into a shootout.
In the end, one goal in the shootout was all the Steelers needed. Loaned netminder Sam Gospel shut out his own team, consigning his name to the history books in Sheffield, and the Steelers to the Challenge Cup Final.
In the second semi final match-up, the Cardiff Devils were up against a surging Coventry Blaze. Cardiff set off with an early lead in their first game at the Sky Dome and didn’t look back. They took the first game 4-1.
Coventry looked like they were going to make a fight of it, Jakub Sindel scoring within the first minute on the power play in the second leg. The Devils, however, scored three times within three minutes towards the end of the first, making a Blaze comeback unlikely. While the Blaze pulled two goals back in the second, another pair of goals for the Devils in the third sealed a 9-4 aggregate win.
The location for the final had already been set as Sheffield – the winner of the Panthers/Steelers game had home-ice advantage, so it was a double win for the Steelers. The Motorpoint Arena had a great atmosphere, Cardiff was well supported and in fine voice against the bright orange of the home team.
While the first period ended 0-0, it was clear that the Devils had turned up intending to win. The Steelers on the other hand seemed to struggle to find rhythm. Both teams had played the day before, and while the Devils’ 12-0 victory against Dundee might have been an easier game than the Steelers 4-3 battle against the Belfast Giants, the Steelers didn’t have the excuse of having to travel.
Ben Bowns was solid in Cardiff’s net, and while the Steelers struggled to connect passes and committed unforgiveable turnovers, the Devils were pushing forward and were the much better team. The loss of playmaker Tomas Petruska early in the first period didn’t assist the Steelers, however it should have been relatively easy for the team to slot back to the top two line formations they had been running for much of the season. Nothing seemed to settle them down, and turnovers and failed offensive zone entries set the tone.
Jeff Legue took an unnecessary slashing penalty as time expired at the end of the first, putting the Devils on the power play at the start of the second, one of which the Devils capitalised on with a goal from Andrew Lord. Less than two minutes later Chris Culligan made it 2-0.
The Steelers kept pushing, but with the Devils playing a tight and controlled game and the Steelers struggling to find any flow, it was clear that coming back from two goals down was unlikely. Cullen Eddy managed to find a way past Bowns in the third, but that was the only mistake the GB netminder made, proving to be a veritable wall in the 2-1 victory.
The Cardiff Devils were deserving winners, outplaying a Sheffield Steelers side that, when they needed to, failed to perform. For the Devils it was a far cry from the controversy that marred the previous season, and it’s testimony to the players and staff that they rebuilt so quickly and effectively after the issues last season that almost saw the end of the club. In some ways it feels like a fairytale ending, and the Steelers fans can only be bitter about their team’s performance.
Still To Come
Like the Steelers, the Devils are still in the race for the league title, and along with the Steelers will be present at the Playoff Weekend in April. There’s nothing to stop Cardiff taking home more silverware, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they did.