The Elite League entered it’s landmark ten years in 2012-13. In the previous nine seasons, three teams had dominated proceedings. That being Sheffield, Belfast and Coventry: the latter with four titles to their name. Belfast had captured the previous title, but for one team in 2012-13 it was to prove a season that they will never ever forget. Who was that team? Read and find out; apologies for the long review that follows by the way.
There was to be a change to the Elite League as we entered season ten. Gone was the straight one big league format, instead replaced with a conference format similar to the NHL. Both conferences were named after GB hockey stalwarts, the northernmost conference the Gardiner Conference after Charlie Gardiner, the Edinburgh born netminder who spent seven seasons in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks and being the only netminder to ever captain a team to Lord Stanley (in 1934) before tragically dying that same summer at the young age of just 29 from a brain haemorrhage as a result of an infection to his tonsils. Sad indeed.
That featured Braehead, Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife and astonishingly Hull. Most thought it would be Belfast but no, they were in the southernmost one – renamed the Erhardt Conference after GB 1936 gold medal winning captain Carl Erhardt. They joined Cardiff, Coventry, Nottingham and Sheffield. With the conferences, there were four trophies on offer. The overall title, the afore mentioned conferences, and of course the usual Challenge Cup and also the end of season play-offs.
One team dominated the season, and for that team it became a massive monkey off their back as they won their first league crown for 57 YEARS! The fans of the Panthers could finally celebrate and be rid of the stigma that seemed to be haunting them. But this particular season, Corey Neilson got it absolutely on the button. Neilson had jettisoned long serving captain Danny Meyers in the summer, who subsequently joined arch rivals Sheffield, and built a roster that featured skilled winger David Ling who had played 93 games in the NHL; predominantly with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Neilson himself started the season still as player-coach but became full time bench head coach in the early months; only icing when needed.
As said above, the Panthers won the title and they did that with a 5-3 win at nearest challengers, Belfast. American forward Patrick Galivan breaking a 3-3 tie with a powerplay goal 3:11 from the end of the third period. The champagne corks certainly flew just under three minutes later when Galivan fed Matt Francis to put the puck into the empty net, Belfast having pulled Stephen Murphy. The hoodoo was certainly broken. This secured the overall title, but Giants at the end of the regular season had one last laugh by winning the inaugural Erhardt Conference due to more regulation wins in that particular competition.
Meanwhile in the Gardiner Conference you could have thrown a blanket over the five teams, and in the end only four points separated top from fifth. As it was, Braehead took the honours by a single point from Fife with Dundee and Hull just a further point back. The first trophy for the Clan, and under their third player/coach in as many seasons: former NHL forward Jordan Krestanovich had succeeded Drew Bannister who quit in the close season to take on a role back in Canadian junior hockey just a month after committing to what would have been a second season in Renfrew.
The Challenge Cup remained in Nottingham for a fourth season in succession. From the initial group stages and the quarter finals it was the Giants, Clan, Panthers and Steelers who advanced to the final four. Panthers took a huge step into the final itself when they brushed aside the Giants 5-1 in their first leg played at the NIC with Matt Francis scoring twice, and three of the goals coming in the final twenty minutes. The second leg saw the Giants lead three times but each time the Panthers responded on parity, and then win on the night thanks to Galivan’s goal with 5:55 left to play.
In the Clan – Steelers semi final, the Clan looked well set when they led the first leg 2-0 after just 39 seconds of the second period being played. But the Steelers dug in and scored four unanswered strikes to give them the advantage for their home leg. However, the second leg saw Clan again make the best start and erase that two goal deficit by 21:11. No further scoring happened for ten minutes until Steelers and GB captain Jonathan Phillips edged his side ahead, and the game was evenly poised as it entered its last seven minutes. Eventually the constant Steelers pressure told, and they scored three times in 3:59 before the end to secure the 8-4 aggregate win.
So the Final was a re-run of the 2009-10 one when the Panthers edged that one 9-7 on aggregate. After the first leg, the Final was seemingly as good as over as Corey Neilson’s team took control with a 4-1 win in Sheffield thanks to a Robert Lachowicz brace, Jeff Legue’s marker for the Steelers being just consolation in ruining Craig Kowalski’s shutout bid. A comeback though looked on the cards when Steelers led the return 2-0 thanks to goals from Lee Esders and Steven Goertzen but a powerplay strike from the giant Bruce Graham opened up a two goal lead for the Panthers which they would not relinquish in front of a capacity crowd in the NIC, 5-3 the final aggregate score.
Therefore the big question was, could the Panthers complete a treble with success in the play-offs? Well the final four saw one major surprise as the Steelers were sent packing by a Coventry side 6-5 on aggregate thanks to an overtime winner at Ice Sheffield from Shea Guthrie who completed a well taken hat-trick. The Blaze were joined in Nottingham by the Panthers themselves who had to come back from a 4-2 first leg deficit in Fife to edge past the Flyers 5-4 overall; Lachowicz’s shorthanded effort in the third period standing up as the game winner. A goal laden encounter between the Clan and the Devils saw the latter win 12-9 on aggregate after the Scots had won 7-5 in the opening leg at Renfrew. Whilst in the remaining quarter-final; the Giants saw off a much improved Edinburgh 7-4 over two legs.
The semi-finals saw the Panthers take on Cardiff in the first game, and the Giants take on the Blaze in the other. Graham and Matt Myers proved to be the difference in that opening match up, each scoring a hat-trick in a 6-3 final scoreline. Meanwhile there were to be no further shocks from the Blaze as the Giants blitzed them with a 3-0 first period lead in the second semi-final. James Griffin pulled one back for Coventry but the Giants regained the initiative in the final period with two more strikes for a 5-1 win. So it was Panthers-Giants for the final piece of silverware domestically and it was an end to end game that saw the sides locked at 2-2 after normal time, Giants recovering from a 2-0 deficit with just one period to play. Eight minutes into the first period of overtime, the teams would play continuous overtime of 20 minutes until a goal was scored, the Panthers put the icing on their cake with the winner thanks to the talismanic figure of Jordan Fox and send their supporters into pure delirium.
There was to be no success for the Giants in the Continental Cup either. Yet they started off their campaign with a crushing 11-1 win over Dutch opponents Geleen Eaters. Ten of the Giants players enjoyed multi-point tallies in that game. However, they came crashing down to earth in game two as Landshut recorded a 7-1 win to put the DEL side onto two wins out of two. A 4-0 shutout of Romanians HSC Csikszereda gave the Giants a glimmer of hope but they were relying on the Dutch completing an unlikely win over Landshut. That didn’t materialise so it was Landshut who advanced. The actual tournament was won by the Ukrainian side HC Donbass who captured it with a 100 per cent record, 12 months after finishing third in the 2011-12 Super Final.
So that was 2012-13, who would end up on top in 2013-14? Would the Panthers build on their success or would it be a one season wonder season? Join us shortly for a review of it here on Chasing The Puck as we edge towards to the present day.