“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”
“Henry IV, Part II”, Act III, scene one.
Back in the heady days of August, when possibilities spread out in front of the ten Elite League teams and anything was possible, there was a lot of talk of the Nottingham Panthers finally breaking the Curse of 1956 and pulling in an Elite League title.
As the season’s gone on, there can be no argument that the Panthers have proved themselves to be the best Panthers side of the Elite League era, demolishing rivals left right and centre to sit with a four-point lead at the top of the table ahead of Belfast, and ten points ahead of Sheffield in third.
A lot of fans are already handing the league title to Nottingham, saying that their combination of skill and strength and depth is enough to finally break that curse.
I’m not one of them. In fact, I think that over the next few weeks, we’ll see this Panthers team placed under the kind of pressure that will make everything up until now seem a cakewalk. And I think that they can be stopped by Belfast. After all, the Giants only need to win two more games than the Panthers, and more importantly, they play them twice-in Belfast.
So here, in my eyes, is how the Panthers lose the title….weekend by weekend.
Belfast face Braehead and Edinburgh in two games that they simply have to win-a slumping Clan and a Capitals squad missing Rene Jarolin and Jade Portwood are still tricky adversaries, but they could be a lot trickier. Belfast have made a habit of losing the odd game they should have won this season, but Doug Christensen will have his (full-strength) squad ready to do-or-die over the next three weeks, and these are games you’d back the Giants to win, particularly with the added incentive of keeping up with Nottingham.
The Panthers, meanwhile, face Hull on Sunday (which you can probably bank as two points) but on Saturday night they face the little matter of a Sheffield team who’d like nothing more than to shove an almighty spanner in the works of Panthers’ league challenge. They’ve already won at the NIC this season, too. If Corey Neilson’s men are going to crack, this is the kind of game that’s going to pile on enough pressure to make them do it.
I can see the Steelers doing so, too. Possibly not in regulation, but either way, I think the Giants are gaining this weekend.
Nottingham 77, Belfast 75. Four games remaining.
This is the weekend upon which the title will be won or lost for Nottingham. Two games, in the Odyssey, against their biggest rivals. There will be no motivation required for either side-but the pressure, which was strong enough beforehand, will all be on the Panthers. The Giants HAVE to win the Friday night game. Do that, and all of a sudden, the two teams are level on points and the momentum has shifted-the doubts will begin to creep in, the pressure will rise, and the Panthers go from sitting fairly comfortably at the top of the table to being level on points and beginning to feel the first tickle of a choke in their collective throats.
And oh yeah, they’ll likely have had the first leg of a Challenge Cup final the week before, too. Three games in five nights is a big challenge when they’re all cup finals.
I think the Giants will win that Friday night game-possibly in overtime. And so we come to Saturday-a titanic battle in the Titanic Quarter-the Panthers wounded from a loss the night before, a massive Giants crowd, an opponent buoyed by a monumental shot-in-the-arm of self belief, tired, banged-up, with the prospect of a CC Final 2nd leg coming up…it’s a nightmare for any squad to face, and it’ll be a test beyond any the Panthers have faced this season.
In my mind, that game’s only going one way.
And suddenly, the Panthers have to get at least three points to win the league.
Projected points: Belfast 79, Panthers 77. Two games remaining
And so we come down to the final weekend of the season with the Giants having, at the very best, a two-point deficit (assuming a split in Belfast) and more likely than not a two-point lead. Belfast face Coventry and Sheffield, Nottingham have a double-header in Cardiff.
But, crucially, the Panthers will likely have to face the Devils off less rest, after contesting a Challenge Cup final which (particularly if it’s against Sheffield as is likely at the moment) the week before will leave them tired on the Friday night.
Sure, Cardiff are not an unbeatable force, particularly in the NIC, but they are exactly the kind of team who are a nightmare to face when you’re tired-hard-hitting, relentless, and physical. On the big rink on the Friday night, the Panthers might just have enough still, but it’ll be a close-run thing, especially with the need of having to win-a loss, even an OT loss, means that the Giants can clinch the league…
…on Saturday, when they play Coventry. While I hate to bet against my own squad, the Blaze will be merely playing out their fixtures and likely already have one eye on a tricky playoff tie with any one of four other teams (but likely Cardiff). The Giants have only lost once at the Skydome this season, and with the impetus of a title on the line, I don’t think they’re losing this time.
Sunday will see Nottingham travel to Cardiff & Belfast to Sheffield. The tiring Panthers will have had an extra day’s rest after Friday night’s battle, but Cardiff on their own rink is a tricky place to go and win-more so when you have to go there to win a title. But they will go with the destiny not in their own hands…but in Sheffield’s.
Assuming the Giants don’t clinch the title in Coventry (which is a possibility), then the Panthers will be relying on the Steelers to do them a favour. Then, of course, they have to win in Cardiff…no mean feat themselves. I’m not sure they’ll manage it.
And in all realism, would Steelers fans really want their team to gift the Panthers a title by winning a meaningless game for an already-clinched 3rd place? I’m not so sure. The Giants will simply have more motivation to win than the Steelers will. And I think they will-which will make the result in Cardiff immaterial
Final points prediction: Belfast 83, Nottingham 79. Giants are EIHL Champions.
Of course, all this prediction could be skewed by OT losses-but look at it this way…realistically, Nottingham can only lose three points from the next eight to be sure of a title win-and will play two more games than the Giants in the next three-week span, including three games in five nights twice. Corey Neilson may have to make choices on how much he wants to win the Challenge Cup and whether or not to sacrifice it for the sake of the league-because if not, the Panthers league challenge will end up becoming the victims of their own success.