Kowalski the hero as Panthers win fifth Challenge Cup in a row

Nottingham Panthers netminder Craig Kowalski
Nottingham Panthers netminder Craig Kowalski

The Challenge Cup trophy will reside in Nottingham for a fifth year on the trot, after Corey Neilson’s Panthers completed a remarkable comeback on Tuesday night.

Notts’ representatives in the Elite Ice Hockey League began the second leg of the final 5-2 down on aggregate to the Belfast Giants – a team who had already clinched the league title at the NIC this season.

But it was the home support, and not the contingent of Northern Irish fans, who were celebrating at the end of a hugely entertaining tie.

Neilson’s men won the game 4-1 in regulation time to draw level at 6-6 on aggregate and force overtime.

That period finished goalless, and netminder Craig Kowalski was heroic in a penalty shootout, saving all three of Belfast’s efforts, while Petr Kalus put the puck past the out-of-sorts Stephen Murphy.

From the opening stages it looked like a big night was on the cards for the Panthers, as they rattled Belfast with some huge hits.

By the end of the first period they were 2-0 up, goals from Lynn Loyns and Kalus raising the noise levels inside the NIC.

Jeff Mason hit back for Belfast in the middle period, before Eric Werner made it 3-1 after a scramble in front of the Belfast net.

With less than 12 minutes remaining in the game Matt Ryan sent an absolute bullet of a shot past Murphy, allowing Nottingham to go on and secure their fifth Challenge Cup victory in a row.