Manchester Phoenix 2 – 3 Nottingham Panthers
Panthers win 9 - 5 on aggregate.
The quest for a place in the Final Four of the Playoffs eluded the Manchester Phoenix on Sunday night as the Nottingham Panthers completed the two-legged victory, but the Phoenix were far from disgraced in a pulsating finale to the season.
Panthers forward Bruce Richardson was magnanimous in victory when he remarked, “we prepared so thoroughly for this quarterfinal as we’ve had trouble with the Phoenix all season. I have total respect for the job Tony Hand has done in Manchester, he put together a great team and they can hold their heads high. I don’t think anyone really wanted to play Manchester, we got to face them and even despite their incredible schedule recently, we knew we’d be in a battle and that’s exactly how it was.”
Phoenix player coach Tony Hand commented, “My guys gave it absolutely everything yet again tonight. I cannot speak highly enough of the effort they’ve put in this season and I told everyone one of them after the game they should be proud of themselves – I’m honoured to have played with and coached them this season. We knew tonight that we had to win every period to give ourselves a chance and after twenty minutes, hopes were high, but I also have to say that Robinson in the Panthers goal was superb tonight. Their first goal knocked some of the energy from us and when they took the lead, deep down, we knew it was going to take something extraordinary. We battled and battled and we never gave up, right to the end. We congratulate Nottingham, they’re a very strong side and you wouldn’t bet against them in their own building.”
The first period on Sunday saw a glut of minor penalties called by referee Darnell with both sides failing on five powerplay opportunities each before the only goal of the session raised the home fans hopes. Kyle Bruce and Lucas Burnett created the scoring chance in the 18th minute and defenceman Josh Garbutt, joining the rush, powered a shot past Michel Robinson in the Panthers goal.
While the Phoenix had had the better of the first period, the Panthers turned the tables in the second session as they forced the pace, roared on by a huge contingent of travelling fans. They tied the score in the 26th minute in agonising fashion for the Phoenix as Stephen Murphy was caught out behind his only goal and David Clarke had the simplest of task to tap the puck into the empty net. Nottingham enhanced their aggregate lead in the 31st minute as Matt Myers got on the end of assists from Neilson and Galbraith to score from short range.
The final period saw the Panthers put the tie beyond the Phoenix as Brendan Cook crashed a rising shot past Murphy in the 47th minute. Phoenix, to their credit, never gave up the fight and their determination to try and save the result on the night drove them on. Their scant reward was a second goal of the game in the 54th minute, Nathan Ward netting at the back post on assists from Kyle Bruce and Josh Garbutt.
Phoenix captain Kenton Smith reflected on a punishing schedule and the finale saying, “I’m amazed at the resilience of this group of guys, I don’t think I’ve been as tired as I feel right now, but we just kept on going. We’ve played so many games, 15 in 27 nights in March alone, but I guess that’s the price of success in reaching two cup finals. I’m proud to have played with these guys and been honoured to be the team captain. We might not have won a trophy, but I truly believe we have been winners. Our fans have been outstanding, and if I had to choose one moment to remember, it would have to be Beau breaking the league record the night he got his 59th goal.”