Panthers tipped to clinch third straight play-off crown

SYLVAIN Cloutier believes Nottingham Panthers will be the team to beat at the Elite League play-off final four weekend.

BIG WEEKEND: Sylvain Cloutier, Hull Stingrays player-coach, believes Nottingham Panthers are the team to beat at this weekend's Elite League play-off final four weekend. Picture: Arthur Foster.

Having already won the regular season league title – ending a 57-year wait – and the Challenge Cup, Corey Neilson’s team are favourites to add the play-off trophy that they have won for the last two years.

Effectively playing at home at the National Ice Centre, they face Cardiff Devils in today’s first semi-final, with Belfast Giants and Coventry Blaze competing in the other last four encounter for a place in tomorrow’s final.

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Player-coach Cloutier, whose Hull Stingrays team failed to make the post-season, but were a surprise package at last year’s final four weekend after beating Sheffield Steelers, strongly fancies Panthers to make it three in a row.

“I think Nottingham’s strength is that they don’t really have any weaknesses in their team,” said Cloutier. “All three of their lines are solid and their depth is excellent.

“They have been the best team all season, they are effectively at home and the other teams are going to have to produce something special to stop them.”

Despite not playing this time around, Cloutier will be at the end-of-season celebration in Nottingham this weekend and, below, gives the Yorkshire Post his opinion on the chances of each of the four teams.

NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS

Strengths: I think their strength is that they don’t have any weaknesses. You’ve got David Ling who is probably the best player in the league and then David Clarke, who is the best British goalscorer in the league.

All three of their lines are solid and their depth is excellent. And with kowalski in net there isn’t really a weakness anywhere.

Weaknesses: Obviously they can be beaten – that was seen this season. So, if anything, if they go into the weekend too confident they could get hurt. But, for this weekend, with them effectively being at home and their fans possibly taking over the arena, they are my favourites to win it all in my book.

One to watch: David Ling. He’s a good all-rounder, an old warrior and he can put up the numbers too. He’s an old-school type player and you don’t find too many of them around these days. He’s certainly player of the year for me.

Coach (Corey Neilson): Coaching is a lot easier when you’re stood behind the bench. If you’re also playing on the ice you’re doing two jobs and it can be difficult. I’ve done behind the bench and I’ve done it as a player-coach. With the latter you’ve also got to be focussing on playing and you’ve got to make sure you have a good bench coach behind you. Corey’s the boss, he can see everything from the bench and it helps make them a better team. Obviously he’s a good player as well, and you can’t take that away from him.

It is tough to make the decision to stop playing. Having him behind the bench makes Nottingham so much better.

BELFAST GIANTS

Strengths: They are another big team so their depth is impressive, their defence is solid and they work hard all the time and compete. Unlike Nottingham, there are no real star players as such on this Belfast team - they just work very hard together as a team and, when the whole team is on it, they are tough to beat.

Weaknesses: Maybe they’ve been over-confident this year a bit too, when you look at some of the losses they’ve had and they’ve lost the title. But they could probably be the one team that gives Nottingham a tough time.

One to watch: For them to win that play-off trophy it’s going to have to be Stephen Murphy in goal. He’s going to have to be on top his game to carry them through.

Coach (Doug Christiansen): Doug is always well-prepared and studies the game very well – he’s certainly going to have them ready for Coventry. It’s just up to the players to do their jobs. A coach can only do so much and I know he’s going to have a gameplan for Coventry that is going to be well broken down so it will be up to the players to execute that.

COVENTRY BLAZE

Strengths: They’ve got a lot of offence with (Shea) Guthrie, Adam Henrich and the Leeb (Greg and Brad) brothers and you have to keep your eye on those guys because they are all playing for Thommo and they could be the surprise team of the weekend. I thought Sheffield would beat them (in the quarter-finals) because they would have had something to prove. But obviously with it being Thommo’s last weekend (the Blaze coach heads off to Sweden next season after 18 years with the Blaze) the boys dug deep and pulled out a great win for him.

Weaknesses: With Jerramie Domish gone and I think Steven Chalmers injured, they are a bit weak at the back-end and that could be where they struggle. Their goaltender Peter Hirsch is going to have to be on the top of his game and, when he is, he’s one of the best goalies in the league.

One to watch: Shea Guthrie is the one to watch for Coventry. He scored the goals that got them past Sheffield last weekend and if they’re going to have any success again this weekend, they need him to do the same again.

He’s got speed, creativity but he competes too. Not many people look at him as a defensive player but he comes to play every night.

Coach (Paul Thompson): He’s not a bad coach I guess ! (Cloutier spent two years at Coventry, winning two league titles). It’s Thommo’s last weekend so he’s going to have his team as ready as they’ll ever be. It will be an emotional week for him. He’s been the best coach in the Elite League since it began 10 or so years ago so I’m sure he’ll want to finish on a high and the boys will have to do a big job for him.

CARDIFF DEVILS

Strengths: Their main strength is the way they are coached by ‘G’ (Gerad Adams), because they’ve been so short-benched most of the season. They’ve been missing one of the league’s top goalscorers in Mac Faulkner for a while now but ‘G’ has managed to get a few of the other guys to pick up the slack and that’s one of their strengths with their coach - they are always well-prepared and ready to play on any given night.

They’ve got a great top line, but once you get past that there isn’t that much offence.

Weaknesses: It will be their lack of depth because of injuries. You just have to hope that their goaltender is on his game - particularly against a team like Nottingham in the semi-final.

One to watch: Mac Faulkner has been their star man for most of the season, but he’s been out for a while now so I think Max Birbraer is the one this weekend. He seems to have picked it up for them, as well as Blight - those two need to be on it this Saturday.

Coach (Gerad Adams): ‘G’ is a competitor, and his coaching style is such that he wants his players to follow his lead. He competes every night, works hard and battles – he’s an old warrior.