…..I don’t have a picture of the inflatable bear, so an actual inflatable panther will have to do.
Throughout history, generals have tried to mask their movements to confuse their enemy. From Hannibal at Lake Trasimene, Napoleon, Wellington, even in mythology with the Trojan Horse, deception has always been a key part of military strategy.
I don’t know if Neil Black has read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but the fog of war is as good as any other explanation ventured as to why the Nottingham Panthers continue to refuse to offer a webcast of their games.
Nevertheless, if you are in Nottingham this weekend you can watch the Belfast Giants battle the reigning Aladdin Cup champion Panthers in a double-header between two teams encountering differing fortunes this season.
The National Ice Centre faithful have not been overly happy with their team’s results so far. The Panthers have been struggling for form in the league, losing eight of their thirteen games so far. They have faired slightly better in the Challenge Cup, winning four games and losing four, with their last two wins knocking the Manchester Storm sideways into the play-in round of the Challenge Cup in the process.
Perhaps the Challenge Cup format needs a re-think.
The Panthers have won their last three games, and have now won their last four out of five in all competitions.
The Giants will see an altered beast from the Panthers team that they beat 3-0 in their first contest this season, with the past few weeks seeing Alexis Loiseau retiring and Jens Jacobs being cut from the roster. They have been replaced by ex-Coventry Blaze forward Jake Hansen, and former Eisbären Berlin centre Julien Talbot.
Style of Play
Hansen has been a shot in the arm for the Panthers with ten points in eight games since joining Nottingham, the only player apart from Sam Herr to score at a point per game so far. He has done this by going to the net, something the Panthers have not been doing as much as they maybe should have.
Nottingham have often taken less than 40% of their shots on goal from the most dangerous areas on the ice, in front of the crease, the inside edge of the circles, and in the high slot area. In their 6-2 loss to Guildford, they took just 19% of their shots from these areas, just about one in five. “Go to the net and good things happen” is an often quoted trope in hockey. The Panthers haven’t, and things haven’t been happening for the East Midlands side.
The Panthers in turn take a lot of shots from the top of the circles out to the blueline, more than half of their shots on some nights. The Panthers have several defencemen with powerful shots, like Adam Deutsch on the powerplay, so this is undoubtedly something they practice, but more shots from further away will equal less goals, and the Panthers have the second worst goals for record in the league at present. Brett Bulmer is one player I would have expected to see shooting from closer to the net, but he has largely been kept to perimeter shots barring a few games.
The Panthers defence plays with less physicality than the team Rich Chernomaz put together last year, going for a more modern puck-moving skilled look from Guillaume Doucet. Two defencemen in Brian Connelly and Mark Matheson can drive play by joining the rush, Matheson sometimes swinging to the left side of the ice from his normal right side to start the breakout. The Giants forecheck and cycle the puck aggressively, with two checkers pressuring the defence on the boards, so the Panthers may be able to force three on two rushes if they can move the puck from the boards quickly.
The Panthers may forecheck more aggressively this weekend, but they seem to use a similar 1-2-2 forecheck to last year. The defence seem to collapse back from the offensive zone quite quickly once the Panthers lose the puck, with a forward creating a triangle in neutral ice to disrupt a rush if they have been forechecking with two forwards.
It is easy to see the quality that Sam Herr has brought to Nottingham. A skillful player who can create goals by himself, plays prominently on the wing on the powerplay, and is also used on the penalty kill to break up play and try and set speedster Ollie Betteridge off on breakaways…
I mean, if they don’t want to offer the webcast privately, they could set up the feed with the Giants OSC, show it in the Odyssey Cinemas?
Sorry, where was I…
Hansen has sparked the Panthers’ offence since arriving for their home and home series against the Cardiff Devils, combining well with Georgs Golokovs and Dylan Malmquist to create an offensive third line. The Panthers will be without Golovkovs due to injury, they could move Bulmer to that line, or may use Robert Lachowicz’s speed in that slot.
Talbot iced for the first time for the Panthers last weekend, gathering two assists in his two games against the Manchester Storm. The 34 year old was a two time Deutsche Eishockey Liga champion in his time with the Eisbären, and his addition gives the Panthers three solid centre options through the middle.
Herr 41 – Perlini 9 – Rheault 88
Bulmer 92 – Talbot 48 – Betteridge 74
Quist 15 – Malmquist 17 – Hansen 21
Lachowicz 7 – – Kelsall 14
Connolly 27 – Fick 2
Lepine 28 – Matheson 20
Deutsch 95 – DeSantis 6
The Panthers are in better form and Coach Tim Wallace might not want to tinker too much with his top line, but combining Talbot and Herr must have crossed Wallace’s mind. Alternatively if Talbot can fire up Brett Bulmer’s offensive game, which has been largely absent in Nottingham, the Panthers could have three potent scoring lines once Golokovs returns.
Much like the Panthers’ Aladdin Cup hangover, the Giants suffered some indifferent form whilst they were competing in the Champions Hockey League. They split each of their first four domestic weekends with one win and one loss apicece, the last of which against the Dundee Stars starting a six game winless streak.
In saying that, two of those games were against a team from one of the top five leagues in the world, and another two more games were in the Challenge Cup. Giants fans know fine well how close the title race can be after the nature of their league win in 2018/19, but the Giants only dropped three league points in those six games. Losing can become a culture as much as winning, but the Giants have turned that league form around in short order and ominously have won their last six league games.
The Giants’ upturn in form coincides with them getting to the net more often than in their losing efforts. When the Giants were struggling, they were mostly creating less than 40% of their chances from the highest danger areas on the ice. In the last six games, they have only dipped below 50% once, and that was still 47% against the Coventry Blaze in their last game. The team cycle the puck to get chances, and the defencemen’s shots are as likely to be aiming for a tip from a forward as they are a shot on goal. The Giants are getting to the game that will give them success.
The team would likely deny it, but it would be interesting to know if it is difficult to re-focus on the bread and butter of the domestic programme after skating in the CHL, maybe even subconsciously dialling it down because you are not skating at the same intensity with two games in two nights. A good question to ask in a period break on a webcast, perhaps?
Lake 9 – Wronka 95 – Smotherman 14
Hamilton 70 – Ward 24 – Morgan 21
Reddox 85 – Dupuy 39 – Farnham 46
Hook 8 – – Long 89
Leonard 10 – Mullen 2
Garside 7- Raine 22
Swindlehurst 23 – Pelech 17
The Giants have rarely had two games in a row running the same lines, with both Wronka and Lake moving to centre their own line as needed. Lewis Hook has been earning more ice time with some excellent performances of late, earning five points in his last five games and combining well with Ben Lake and Liam Morgan.
Someone will need to step aside if new signing Ryan Lowney is to make his debut this weekend. Lowney could be a natural fit alongside Kevin Raine should the current defence be fully fit, with Garside moving to centre to replace whichever import has to sit out at forward.
The team that beat the Czech Extraliga’s Liberec was always there, and they are starting to show what they intend to do to the Elite League in their defence of the Elite League title. The Panthers have struggled at times so far but are putting some form together. It remains to be seen if this is a yawn that looks like a roar, or if the Panthers have turned a corner and will start to move up the table, but this should be two cracking games of hockey.
Enjoy watching the games if you are in Nottingham. If you can’t make it, updates will once again be available on all of your favourite social media platforms.
Let battle commence.