A SENSATIONAL final period from Nottingham Panthers saw them defeat Belfast Giants 5-3 to clinch their first league title since 1956.
The tears were flowing as much as the champagne as a power-play goal from Pat Galivan in the dying minutes saw Panthers take a richly-deserved lead before Matt Francis’s empty net clincher.
After a penalty-ridden opening session, Panthers took charge in the second period with goals from David Clarke and David Ling adding to the first period leveller from Bruce Graham at the Odyssey Arena.
But ultimately they were too strong for a brave Belfast side and they were left to celebrate long into the night . . . and deservedly so.
Panthers were at full strength with Galivan as expected returning to the line-up for David Beauregard, who scored in their victory in Hull last weekend.
Belfast had GB’s Stephen Murphy in goal and were therefore playing 11 import skaters, but they were without British sniper Colin Shields.
Panthers’ army of travelling fans filled one corner of the arena and were quick to make themselves heard amid the loud drumbeat from a big home crowd.
The visitors were first to show when clever play from Graham and Ling paved the way for a shot from the on-rushing Rob Lachowicz, but his effort whistled past the post.
They continued to do all the forcing and when Matthew Myers was trapped on the ice at the boards, a scuffle broke out with Clarke fighting Brock Matheson, followed shortly afterwards with Kelsey Wilson tussling at the benches with Damien Rycroft – before five minutes had gone.
Belfast’s best chance came after a poor Panthers line change but Jeff Mason shot wildly past the far post only for Kevin Saurette’s follow up to be held by Kowalski.
The first power-play came on seven minutes with Belfast’s Andrew Fournier being penalised for tripping but that was negated when Panthers’ Ling was caught in possession and also went to the sin bin for the same offence.
But Giants found themselves in more problems with referee Mike Hicks calling penalties on Robbie Sandrock and Chad Langlais as tempers frayed.
Panthers failed to get their power-plays to click, however, and Giants hit back in the tenth minute with Fournier fluffing a golden opportunity to put them in front.
The first spell of real pressure from the home side came when Clarke was penalised for tripping in the 14th minute, and he was soon joined in the box by Graham for roughing – leaving Panthers two men down for over a minute, which they killed with ease.
The penalties kept on coming but when Giants broke clear shorthanded in the 17th minute, they earned a penalty shot when Panthers hauled down the man on the rush and Noah Clark made no mistake to put his side in front.
But before the cheering had died down, Panthers made sure they went in level at the break with leading scorer Graham hitting his 35th goal of the season, Ling and Jonathan Weaver the helpers.
Belfast got the ideal start to the second period when Panthers failed to get the puck out of their zone and when it was sent back in, Kowalski was out of position leaving Saurette to score on the gaping net.
But there was no keeping this Panthers side down and less than two minutes later it was 2-2 with Clarke blasting a snorter past Murphy from a neat pass by Jordan Fox.
That goal seemed to lift Panthers to another gear and when Giants did manage to break clear, a massive hit by Myers halted them in their tracks.
Panthers started to get a stranglehold on the game and after Giants had been hemmed in their zone for minutes, Kelsey Wilson’s hard work behind the net on the half-hour mark set up Ling to pick his spot for a simple finish to put the visitors in front for the first time.
More pressure came from Panthers in the 35th minute when Matheson was penalised for holding but the power-play, as dominant as it was, came to nothing as did Belfast’s when Myers was next to visit the sin-bin.
But just before the period ended, the outplayed Giants levelled it up at 3-3 out of the blue when Panthers were caught pushing up, leaving Adam Keefe on his own to slot the puck past Kowalski, and setting it up for a tense final 20 minutes.
Panthers had it all to play for, with that first league title a tantalising 20 minutes away and they started just as they had finished the second period, on top with Francis being denied by a post.
Successive icing calls had Giants on the back foot again but they gained some relief when Fox was harshly called for charging, with Panthers seeing off the penalty comfortably.
Belfast were warned by ref Hicks for continually delaying whenever they were called for icing.
But they were grateful for all the rest they could get as Panthers tried to up the tempo again.
A sloppy pass from Graham bounced over Ling’s stick when he was wide open but immediately afterwards, Saurette tripped Francis leaving Panthers with another power-play opportunity.
But it was Giants who came close to hitting a fourth with two short-handed breakaway chances in the 53rd minute, fortunately thwarted by Kowalski.
When Ling was hauled down by Sandrock, Panthers were again on the power-play, with just under five minutes remaining and this time they got one to stick.
Superb work down the right by Brandon Benedict and Lachowicz saw the puck fed to the unmarked Galivan, who powered it home to make it 4-3 and leave Panthers with a tense three minutes to win that long-awaited title.
And when Francis raced away to score on the empty net for goal no.5 the champagne started flowing from here to the Trent. . . and the Guinness didn’t go down too badly either!