Quarter-Final First Leg Preview
A six point weekend, in Scotland, saw the GMB Nottingham Panthers to a fourth placed finish in the league, one place, and one point, ahead of their quarter-final opponents, the Belfast Giants.
However, league standings will count for little in the playoffs as any of the eight teams who have qualified are capable of winning the, maximum, four games required to lift the playoff crown.
With the Panthers missing out on reaching the final four weekend last season they are determined to make amends this year and play two more games in front of their fans.
Belfast will be looking to complete a domestic double having already proven cup competition is their forte this season, as they went into Cardiff in the Challenge Cup final, against the hometown Devils, and skated out with the trophy.
Will Belfast prevail in another cup competition this season, or will the Panthers book their place to the dance?
This first leg won’t answer that question, but it will give us a pretty good idea heading into Sunday.
The Story So Far
An evenly contested season series between the two teams ended with the Panthers posting a 4-6-0 record against the Giants, 4-4-0 in league action and 0-2-0 in the Challenge Cup semi-final.
In those 10 games the teams have racked up a total of 87 goals between them, with the lowest scoring two games having six goals a piece, and the highest scoring game containing a whopping 13 goals.
Winning the first three games of the season series, by score-lines of 5-4, 6-3 and 5-4 (in OT), the Panthers laid down a marker to the Giants.
Belfast would, however, come roaring back and take 6 of the remaining seven games between the sides.
In that seven game span the only Panthers victory was that in which forward Luke Pither made his debut, registering two goals including the game winner - a debut from which he has never looked back as he has become a regular on the scoresheet since his arrival.
Heading to the Emerald Isle the Panthers are in fine fettle, with four wins from their last four games, along with thirteen out the last possible fourteen points on offer (a shootout loss to the Manchester Storm the only blemish on their record in the last seven games).
Belfast, however, come into this game having gone 4-4-0 in league action during the month of March, following their Challenge Cup victory against the Cardiff Devils at the very start of the month.
Coach Corey Neilson has decided who his starting netminder will be for the playoffs, but is yet to make that information public.
Whomever is chosen to guard the Panthers goal has an important job on their hands as, with two free-scoring teams, the duel between the man in the opposing goal will likely decide who advances to the final four weekend.
Player To Watch
David Clarke makes his return to the line-up tonight after missing the last four games through injury.
With retirement on the horizon, and just two guaranteed games left, a win in this game would go a long way to the fairytale ending the team, and David, are aiming for as they look to make the final for and claim playoff glory.
A big game player throughout his illustrious career he is sure to leave his mark on what is the biggest game of the season so far.