TWO goals behind after 23 minutes, the Newcastle Vipers responded with venom in this first leg Challenge Cup semi-final.
Putting their poor league form and off-ice financial woes behind them for a night, the Vipers put the puck in the back of the Panthers’ net four times without reply to go in for the second break with a 4-2 lead.
Jade Galbraith’s successful slap shot with four minutes left set up a tense finale as the Vipers had to kill a penalty, Jamie Tinsley ordered off the ice for interference.
During a mad scramble around the net the Panthers appealed for a goal but referee Moray Hanson was unmoved and then the often deadly David Clarke missed a chance at the far post to hit the equaliser.
The Vipers went into the game with the luxury of have 13 skaters for once, three more than recently as they welcomed back a trio of tyros to the bench, defenceman Daniel Pye, plus forwards Callum Davies and Adam Reynolds. But the Panthers, who arrived in Whitley Bay late, delaying the face-off time by eight minutes, could call on the services of 18 skaters.
Just 56 seconds into the game referee Hanson decided the Panthers’ player-coach Corey Neilson was guilty of interferance but the Vipers couldn’t capitalise on their man advantage and the Panthers were soon to give them a powerplay lesson.
After the Panthers’ goalie Craig Kowalski had been tested by Mike Prpich and Dean Holland the Vipers found themselves on the penalty kill, as a result of defenceman John Schwarz being penalised for hooking.
Unfortnately the home team couldn’t hold out and on seven minutes the puck, first-timed from the edge of the paint by David-Alexandre Beauregard, was flying past netminder Charlie Effinger.
Kowalski, rated number five netminder in the league, was again in the thick of the action when he made a fine save from Toms Hartmanis and from the rebound, used his body to block another goal attempt and by jamming a pad to a post, stopped the puck going in a thrid time.
At the other end the Panthers wasted a two on one breakaway as Daniel Tkaczuk somehow sent the puck wide with Effinger stranded and a big target to shoot at.
Two minutes into the middle period Tkaczuk, the former first round NHL draft pick, was sitting in the away penalty box but, 29 seconds into his 120-second sentence, was celebrating. David Clarke broke away and roofed the puck for a shorthanded marker timed at 23 minutes exactly.
With 17 seconds left on the penalty, defenceman Kyle Sibley hit his eighth goal of the season from Jaroslav Rzeszutko’s pass to halve the defecit.
When the Vipers’ 14-16-18 starting line is on the ice the team has a potent offensive threat and Messr Rzeszutko, Hartmanis and Prpich combined for the 28th-minute equalising score, the later weaving his way around opponents before beating Kowalski high.
It was the number 18’s 12th goal in 21 games and 32nd point. Not long after a Tkaczuk shot had struck metalwork the Vipers went ahead through British forward Dean Holland on 35 minutes, the strike only his fourth goal in his 36 appearances.
However, it was soon to get even better for the home side.
With just over a minute left to play in the period, Hartmanis left loose a snap-shot that sped through Kowalski’s legs to give the Vipers a 4-2 advantage and prompt great celebrations from the home fans.
After possibly the most enjoyable period of hockey this season for the long-suffering Vipers’ fans , it seemed the good times could continue in the third as the Panthers’ defensive frailities were again evident.
Mention again must be made of Effinger’s contribution to the victory. During the 60 minutes of play he made 34 saves in total, while his Panthers’ counterpart, Kowalski, made 21.
VIPERS: Hartmanis 1+2, Sibley 1+1, Holland and Prpich 1+0, Rzesutko 0+2, Stewart 0+1.
PANTHERS: Beauregard, Clarke and Galbraith 1+0, Hereema, Levers, Meyers Ryan and Tkaczuk 0+1.