WITH a place in the Challenge Cup final up for grabs, last night's joint semi-final second leg and league game was over as a contest at the end of a one-sided first period.
The Vipers returned to the dressing room for the first break 4-0 behind on the night and trailing 7-4 on aggregate.
Any glimmer of hope there might have been of a Vipers’ comeback was then utterly crushed by a five-goal blitz in just under nine minutes of middle period play.
After being able to call on 10 skaters for Saturday night’s lacklustre 4-0 home reverse to the Coventry Blaze, the Vipers last night made two additions to their bench strength against the Panthers.
Forward Adam Reynolds returned to make his 12th appearance for the team and for the first time he was joined by his Whitley Warriors team-mate, defenceman Dan Harris.
Playing in front of a crowd numbering around 5,000, the Vipers went behind after just two minutes of play.
The Panthers’ player-coach Corey Neilson shot home the puck to make the aggregate score 4-4.
After weathering a continued onslaught in which netminder Charlie Effinger was kept busy, the Vipers created chances during a powerplay but could not find a way to beat Craig Kowalski in the Panthers’ net.
Not long after Reynolds had tested the netminder with a rising shot, the Vipers conceded two goals in the 14th minute.
Rob Bellamy’s low back-handed shot from inside the left-hand face-off circle made it 2-0 (5-4) and 31 seconds later, another former NHL’er Daniel Tkaczuk rounded Effinger before scoring.
Effinger was flicking the puck out his net for a fourth time in just over two minutes when Guillaume Lepine tapped it home from close range to further increase the Panthers’ lead.
Vipers’ defenceman John Schwarz was sitting out a slashing penalty when Jeff Heerema struck a powerplay fifth for the Panthers on 24 minutes and the goal was to the the first of four to be let in by the Vipers in just under two chaotic minutes.
David Clarke made it 6-0 and 10 seconds later Bellamy added the seventh at the back post.
Then Heerema, with an open net to shoot at, made it 8-0 (26 minutes) and the goal signalled the end of Effinger’s game. He had faced 23 shots.
His replacement Liam McAllister survived the first Panthers’ assault on his goal but was beaten for the first time on 28 minutes, Billy Ryan adding a goal to his three prior assists to make it 9-0 (12-4). Two minutes into the final period the Panthers went into double figures when Ryan shot over McAllister’s glove hand.
On 46 minutes, the former first-round draft pick Tkaczuk was the first to a rebound and fired the puck into an open goal for 11-0 (14-4).
It was the second time this season the Vipers defence had been breached 11 times by the Panthers in a game and it got worse as Ryan struck his hat-trick marker on 48 minutes.
Jade Galbraith made it 13-0 with six minutes remaining and Heerema completed his hat-trick from close range before Galbraith rounded off the rout on 56 minutes.
It was the seventh time the Vipers had been prevented from scoring this season.
PANTHERS: Ryan 3+3, Heerema 3+1, Bellamy 2+3, Galbraith 2+1, Tkaczuk 2+0, Clarke and Neilson 1+2, Lepine 1+1, Myers 0+4, Levers 0+3, Beauregard 0+2, Lee, Lachowicz and Nikolov 0+1.
BLAZE: Nell 2+0, Fulghum 1+1, Owen 1+0, Carlson and Weaver 0+2, Cruickshank and Selmser 0+1.