The American struck the winner early in the second period after Ara Nazarian had got the Giants on the board midway through the first period, with netminder Tyler Beskorowany making 38 saves to help backstop Adam Keefe’s side to a big win on home ice.
Sean Norris, bumped up to the second line with Greg Printz and Ben Lake, had an early chance when he jumped off the bench and fired on goal from the high slot but only found the midriff of Mike Robinson, but it would be Nottingham who would forge ahead at 1:59 as Myles McGurty’s shot from the blue-line went the all the way in. (0-1)
Beskorowany had to make a big stop to deny Westin Michaud on an odd-man rush shortly after and then Stephen Anderson nearly banked a shot off the skate of Jeff Baum and in but it just trickled wide of the net, while at the other end Cullen nearly scored earlier into his return when he wristed one from long range but Robinson gloved again.
The chances kept coming, Oliver Cooper spinning and shooting in close and hitting the post for the Giants, while Michaud and Didrik Henbrant had chances in quick succession off giveaways by Giants defencemen but couldn’t beat Beskorowany.
It would be a tied game at the first intermission, though, as Nazarian was gifted an equaliser at 13:51, allowed to skate in on Robinson unopposed as two Panthers collided off a face-off, but his backhanded finish was a piece of magic (1-1), and the same man nearly gave the Giants a lead at the break with a wicked one-timer from the right circle that was well saved by Robinson.
The Giants would start the second period on a holdover powerplay after McGurty was boxed for slashing at the end of the opening frame, although the best chance fell to Panthers forward Anderson on the shorthanded breakaway before the penalty expired.
But Belfast would go ahead at 25:02 as Cullen got his goal, the defenceman jumping into the play and jamming the puck in from close range (2-1), although the lead was almost short-lived as mere seconds after the restart Henbrant got in one-on-one on Beskorowany but could only hit the post with his attempt.
The Giants would have to kill two penalties late in the period to maintain their lead at the second intermission, Lake (interference) and Kohei Sato (tripping) the ones to sit, and Beskorowany made two fine stops on Henbrant and Otto Nieminen to keep them ahead, with Logan Neilson hitting the crossbar, while Robinson was alert to deny Lake late in the period.
Another holdover penalty on the Panthers, this one against Anderson for tripping, once again went unpunished and the visitors started the period strongly as Jake Ryzcek, Neilson and Jordan Kelsall all had chances denied by the resolute Beskorowany in the early stages of the final frame.
An end-to-end period continued to produce chances, with the returning David Goodwin sent into the left circle by Nazarian but he couldn’t beat Robinson down low before Beskorowany made another huge stop to deny Mathieu Lemay on the breakaway.
But the Giants would be the ones who would shore up their defence in the last few minutes to try and close out the win and it would be they who would have the better chances late on as Matt McLeod tested Robinson on a couple of occasions, while Printz nearly won it on a defensive giveaway, and even when Robinson was pulled by the Panthers for the extra skater they couldn’t even get a shot in on Beskorowany as the Giants closed out the win with the 5-on-3 powerplay as Michaud (unsportsmanlike conduct) and Carl Neill (roughing) took late penalties.
The Stena Line Belfast Giants look to make it a sweep in their double-header with the Panthers as they go head-to-head in the second game at the SSE Arena on Saturday 13 January, before embarking on a weekend road trip to Nottingham and Coventry next weekend, facing the Panthers on Saturday 20 January and Blaze on Sunday 21 January. Tickets are available here.