Championship Sunday dawned cold in Nottingham, and probably early for many fans, who had filled the pubs and clubs of the city centre the night prior. Even what looked like traditional British pubs were often turned into thumpa-thumpa noise boxes with people standing four deep at the bars waiting for service while others sat at tables or sang along with the music in mock karaoke.
Nearly everywhere, one team or the other of the four represented at the PredictorBet Finals Weekend, as well as many of the other seven teams in the English Elite Ice Hockey League, made up the majority of patrons at a given establishment. Belfast Giants fans one place. Cardiff Devils fans another. They mixed, sure, and it was all quite friendly, but the need to support one’s team of choice extended far into the night.
The games on this day were two: Guildford, which had lost a tight game to Belfast, was to play Nottingham. The Panthers had been dropped in a 9-4 blowout to Cardiff. Sunday was, as the Nottingham coach said after Saturday’s game, the “loser cup,” a game he said that nobody had any interest in playing in. He would try, he indicated, to get his guys rallied, but when you hear the following: “We’ll just be trying to make sure nobody gets injured,” you know you’re in for a snoozer.
The game itself began almost like an All-Star contest. No particular hitting. Nobody really getting close to the other guy. Chris Stewart of the Panthers was the exception to this, taking his man hard and jawing t him after. That developed into nothing. However, the Panthers made it exciting with a four-goal outburst in the space of about five minutes, between seven gone and twelve gone. Meanwhile, the chances that Guildford got included a couple of shots and deflections in the slot. Anytime their goalie covered the puck, the referee had him push it back into play rather than blowing the whistle for a faceoff.
What was equally intriguing as the on-ice action, at least to the few thousand gathered, was the progress of a giant see-through beach ball which was making its way around the stands. Bigger cheers were elicited for it when it nearly entered play, when the penalty timekeeper batted it back into the crowd, and when the Nottingham bench players whacked it with their sticks back up into the stands, than for the goals. When it mysteriously deflated after making way all the way back around to the Belfast section, there was a collective sigh of disappointment.
The second and third periods produced a brief flurry where Guildford gave a goal and got a goal a couple of times to end the second period 7-2. This continued early in the third, with the game going to 8-3. It would end 9-5, with the final two goals of the contest scored by Guildford. They got the last one with 13.9 seconds to go. Victors Nottingham had lost by a nearly identical score Saturday when they took a 9-4 drubbing by Cardiff, and thus were involved in the two highest-scoring contests of the weekend.
Gospel, the diminutive Nottingham goaltender who I mentioned yesterday, came in to start the second period for Nottingham, gaining more experience. He plays an odd game, maybe because he’s so small. Frequently, with the puck in the slot, he was four feet off the top of his crease. This worked. It wouldn’t have had Guildford gotten onto it and started sending a guy low when the puck was in the high slot.
Guildford got something out of the game. The team played two young British prospects, #24 Richard Krogh and #62 Joshua Waller, who had started playing in England then gone abroad in search of better competition, and this year returned to home soil much stronger players.
The Flames also can be proud of their season. They’ve only been in this league for two years. To make the final four, if only to end up fourth, is much more than they might have reasonably expected this early in their tenure in the Elite League.
And then it was time to decide the Champion. As I’ve been detailing over the course of the weekend, fans buy tickets for the whole weekend, and they buy them in blocks, where like fans sit with like. So if you imagine that the Final game would have been lightly attended except for the two teams contesting, you’d have it wrong. The Motorpoint arena, with a capacity of about 6500, was jammed full, as it had been all day Saturday. (Sunday at noon, the consolation game, was a little more lightly attended, though if you reference the above discussion of the flowing of distilled beverages that seemed to be happening the evening prior, you might understand the need to sleep in a little bit.)
For the full details, see my next story. You do want to know who won, and how, don’t you?