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February, 2011:

Know Your (So-Called) Enemy

Rivalries are not as common place in sport as many may think. Some are long-standing; some are spurred on by events in games gone by. Many are developed through a chase for glory, while far too many are the invention of the fans or media with no basis in actuality. 

I overheard a discussion on Saturday in which the Nottingham Panthers were described to a new fan as one of the Belfast Giants “most bitter rivals”. This is not true. But it did get me thinking over the weekend as to whether the Giants have had any real ‘rivals’ or basis for a continued ‘rivalry’ in their time on the ice. 

I certainly have little love for the Nottingham Panthers, stretching back to the days of Barry Nieckar, Jason Clarke and even Clayton Norris, whose actions alone in one game had the stewards advise me that my language “was not in keeping with the family atmosphere” such was my fervent reaction to his goon tactics.   

But the Nottingham Panthers main rivals are the Sheffield Steelers, always have and will be. A rivalry must exist to a point where both sets of fans have the same level of high disdain for the other teams mere existence, never mind ability. So while many like myself may be short on love for the Panthers, the level of pseudo-ill feeling is most certainly not replicated from the East Midlands. 

The Coventry Blaze and Newcastle Vipers have both been party to events opposing the Giants that led to short term conflict both on ice and in the press, but neither developed so far for such emotion to continue year on year. As such even now with the Vipers and Blaze struggling to match achieved performance levels of times gone by, the emotional involvement of many Giants fans toward these teams, so potent when these flashpoints were met, would not be of a level that matched that today.  

Schadenfreude would come into play for such a change in fortune. The fall of a once dominant team would be a source of humour and glee for a true rival, but the current plight of Newcastle and failure of Coventry to reach heights of former glories do not draw many, if any, wry smiles from around the Odyssey, most lie in mere apathy. 

So do the Giants have any actual rivals? In my opinion, no.  

Only one true rivalry lies in the EIHL, the border between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire tarnished many a time by conflicts that date back years in the past. Names that draw a smile or a grimace from the faithful facing across the divide. Ken Priestly, for example, is a name that would being joy to many eyes in South Yorkshire, while simultaneously turning the stomachs of those on Lower Parliament Street. Such a potent example does not, unfortunately, exist with Belfast. 

Location has a great deal to do with this, proximity leads to many travelling fans, a fiery atmosphere and develops a rivalry to its very hilt. Belfast fall short on that through no fault of their own, but a possibility may have once existed in the form of Ayr Scottish Eagles. Sadly, however, we were never to see if a rivalry could be formed out of the ashes of a Challenge Cup entanglement, as their unfortunate history tells. 

Unless a, highly unlikely, day comes in the future when another Irish franchise was to enter the fray, then Giants fans will have to make do with their own unreciprocated dislike for select opposition teams. 

This brings me once again back to the Nottingham Panthers, for whom I, and a close Steelers supporting friend, made a special point of travelling to Belfast to witness take on the Giants.

The Panthers fans themselves, as is usual and expected for such a double header event, crossed the Irish Sea in high numbers. Hoping that the enjoyment they had off-ice in a similar pair of fixtures last season could be replicated, but prayed for quite the opposite fortunes when it came to the on-ice events.

What they received started so well and ended so abysmally.

The first of the two games was a hard fought affair, Nottingham looking to avenge the penalty shots defeat they had suffered to the Giants at home only 7 days previous. Neilsons team were the better of the two, taking advantage of the Giants unexplained lack of physical presence, while also being backstopped by the superb Craig Kowalski.

Like in Nottingham, the panthers held a 2 goal advantage and looked to be in the driving seat. The Giants powerplay was once again disjointed, majority of the advantage not being used and the puck appending a lot of time in the defensive and neutral zones. The penalty kill remained static and tight, no player looking to pressure the puck carrier and few, if any, taking a risk on a forecheck.

Belfast needed a spark and, some little window of opportunity to get back in the game and found it when a tap by Mark Garside squeezed by Kowalski’s left pad and ended up millimetres over the line. This was all was needed. The game was into it’s final minutes, but the Giants had finally awoken and realised they were back with a shout in this game.

The small margins are what turn a game but it’s the tactics that make it entertaining. As such with only a goal in the game,  and just over a minute on the clock, an icing by the Nottingham Panthers pulled play back into their defensive zone. Hockey is a game of risks and rewards. This is no-more better displayed than in this exact situation. The dropping of the puck and subsequent won draw by Josh Prudden for Belfast brought a raised hand from Doug Christansen and a beckoning of Steven Murphy to the bench.

A movement and tactic replicated though-out the world of hockey. A tight losing situation can go one of two ways, a last gasp goal that brings a valuable point and a revived chance of overall victory to the club, or a loss that was in situ before the netminder was pulled. However the reward far outweighs the risk, such is why the netminder for extra outskater tactic is as common in the NHL and Olympic games as it is in the EIHL and recreational hockey.

This time the Giants got lucky. With the extra attacker, as has been the case in their powerplay during this game and many more before, they struggled to cycle the puck. Panthers had their chance in the empty net and missed. The Giants stayed in the game.

With 20 seconds left on the clock referee Tom Darnell made an excellent call on Nottingham’s Rob Belamy, a player who had been the thorn in the Giants side all game, but his slash was too obvious to be ignored. The Giants went 6 on 4 as play was brought back to the right face off circle within the Panthers zone.

While being one of the leagues leading defenseman, Corey Neilson has never displayed a great coaching ability. He continues to fall short in his tactics, decisions and mainly his accountability in the face of adversity. Such an example of poor tactics came at this moment of Fridays game.

Neilson had been thrown out of the face off circle on more than 3 or 4 occasions earlier in the game. His attempts to put Giants face-off specialist Prudden off his game proving futile and subsequently putting increased pressure on the following centreman (usually Matt Myers) to win the draw.

This was to happen again. Neilson went to face off against Prudden while the Giants held a two out-skater advantage, and without fail, in an attempt to rile the Giants centre-man, was thrown out. 

Immense pressure now fell to Myers to win the draw and prevent the Giants capitalising on their personnel advantage. Myers approach in the face off circle, however, was to follow his coach and attempt to push Prudden out with an aim to face a less experienced centre.

Twice he was warned by linesman and referee as he delayed the face off through pushes and slashes. The crowd cried out for the penalty that such events required, and as Myers once again pressed to rile Prudden, at last Darnell had seen enough. His hand correctly was raised and Myers took a seat. Neilsons tactics had backfired, the Giants now held a 3 man advantage with 20 seconds on the clock. The puck dropped, only 11 seconds of that 20 were needed to pass before Simon Lambert was found back stick to level the game. The Odyssey erupted into a cacophony of noise, a fine fight back to take a single point.

It was a single point however that they left with that night. Penalty shots determined the game and despite a fine goal from the returning Colin Hemmingway (though an ill-advised celebration) the Panthers took the 2 points they had hoped would be exclusive.

The inevitable post-mortem by the fans concluded that the despite a late fight back the Giants lacked passion and grit that allowed the Panthers to dictate a majority of the game in the Giants own barn. There was the hope that things would change the next night, with the home team wanting to take at least one win from the weekend and the need to bring fans back on  side by firing quickly from the blocks.

What they got was a lot more besides. Saturdays game saw an implosion of epic proportions from the visitors. Jade Galbraith has blown hot and cold for the Panthers all season, but still remains key to their offence. However, his antics in Rockies the night before, and subsequent violation of a curfew imposed by Neilson saw him dressed but not involved at all in this game. Similar Ian McDonald. As such Lepine and Zion were forced to take a forward role allowing the Giants to exploit the short, overstretched back lines with aplomb.

Giants raced to a 3-0 lead in the first period and despite his superb performance the previous night Kowalski was unable to backstop them to a similar performance thanks to his defence leaving him isolated and out to dry on more than one occasion. So when the score hit 5-0 in the second period it was no surprise that he walked from the game and gave back-up netminder Dan Green the floor. Was this a case of him rating his own performance or just utter frustration at what was going on in front of him, only K-Wall knows for sure, but not something he’d have wanted on his 30th birthday.

The Panthers were shambolic and Neilson’s face off tactics were losing again and again and again. It is amusing that in todays Nottingham Evening Post he sights the Face Off stats as a reason for the loss, and proceeds to admonish any responsibility from his own coaching, once again showing the total lack of accountability that plights his coaching.

The game ended with a superb 7-2 demolition of the visitors and a very frustrated group of Panthers fans left immediately from the arena, not waiting to give any recognition to their teams performance.

The implosion from the Panthers is not to take anything away form the Giants performance, they took advantage of what was in front of them and to be fair some of the special teams were once again clicking for at least two periods. In the third when the Panthers tried to change momentum through muscle. The Odyssey crowd finally thought they were going to see a fight from the largely absent physical game of Mike Hoffman. The resulting fight with Lepine was, unfortunately, a damp squib. One real throw from the Panthers, now lone, tough guy and both hit the deck within a few seconds. The Giants game was then “as you were” (maybe easing off the gas?) with a static PK.. but thankfully at that point the game was won.

And so the Giants came away with 3 points to the Panthers 2, but despite the narrow margins the home team seemed by far the happier. The Panthers fans shell shocked by the result and resulting rumours of Galbraith’s request of a release from his contract, the talk of dressing room bust ups and internal melt downs. The last couple of days have seen questions asked of the organisation, coaching and fans.. while in Belfast there is a renewed hope that a corner has been turned. The older Hemmingway has brought another facet to the game with his return and with Cardiff’s long awaited defeat last night to bring an end to their record breaking winning run… maybe, just maybe this title race isn’t dead yet.

And so we return to rivalries, because sometimes they are a nice thing to have, bringing atmosphere and edge to certain games. But they are not always required to add certain spice to match ups when you have your own disdain for select opposition, whatever the reason. Giants would love to have a proper rivalry to develop, but such a day is far from fruition.