It was a slower start for the Belfast Giants after their last two appearances in Nottingham led to an onslaught of early goals.
Giants’ goalie Jackson Whistle was tested twice in the opening two minutes, before Sam Ruopp was pressed into a turnover; calling Whistle into action again to deny Edwin Hedburg’s shot from close range.
At the other end, another forced turnover by David Goodwin and a Scott Conway shot on Carr’s right was Belfast’s best chance of the opening minutes.
A squared puck to Mark Cooper mid period was saved in style by Carr who extended his stick across the open net to deny the Giants an opener.
After a lengthy delay to repair the Panthers goalie’s loose right post, the Panthers turned the screw. First Ollie Betteridge rang the crossbar on the backhand, before Robbie Baillargeon’s low shot at 15:41 beat Whistle (Assist: Christophe Boivin). (1-0)
A breakaway off the drop opened the door for Baillargeon to double his tally and the Panthers lead, finishing Massimo Corozza’s stretch pass into the zone at 15:53. (2-0)
Baillargeon’s busy first period continued with a hooking call at 16:23, but a sorely needed opener from Belfast did not materialise.
Cam Knight and Scott Conway combined in a mad scramble inside the opening minute of the middle period, followed by a Matthew Myers slashing penalty at 22:33, but the Giants did not offer the hot start they needed to get back into the game.
Belfast’s kill unit shut the door on a Kevin Raine interference call at 25:07, a solid effort in their opening shift of the night.
Nottingham’s Sean Richards threatened on the breakaway later in the period before a follow up rush saw Cam Knight’s diving block aid Whistle in turning away Edwin Hedburg.
Slater Doggett had a one-on-one breakaway opportunity with a minute to go, but Kevin Carr’s excellent tracking shut down any glimmer of a goal.
The Belfast Giants were much improved offensively and notably tighter at the back as a crucial third period began.
It took eight minutes for Adam Keefe’s side to get on the board, as Sam Ruopp’s puck in from the blue line was redirected at the edge of the crease by Scott Conway at 48:36 (Second assist: JJ Piccinich). (1-1)
From there, Belfast ran riot in the zone in search of an elusive equaliser. Mark Garside’s shot into traffic came close with six minutes remaining, but the puck was turned away as Carr launched his body across the face of goal.
With four minutes remaining, the Giants’ top line of Goodwin, Piccinich and Conway laid siege to the Panthers net.
The home fans likely breathed a sigh of relief at 56:25 when Ben Lake was sent to the box for high sticking, leaving the Giants on the kill with a minute and change of regulation left at 5 on 5.
Back at full strength, Jackson Whistle raced for the bench with just over a minute remaining in favour of the extra skater, and at the next break in play Adam Keefe called a time out.
Kevin Carr was peppered from the drop, and in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, Mark Cooper fired the puck home in the midst of a net-front scramble to tie the game with an unbelievable 0.4 seconds of regulation remaining (Assist: Griffin Reinhart, David Goodwin). (2-2)
Belfast looked the more likely to get something out of an intense spell of 3 on 3 overtime, riding the momentum of their last gasp equaliser.
They were helped considerably by a Jeremy Welsh slashing call at 61:16, but a combination of resolute goaltending and brave defending kept the Giants at bay.
Jackson Whistle pulled off a clutch stop from Aaron Thow’s mid-slot wrister with 1:52 remaining, and as time elapsed the Motorpoint Arena took a deep breath and prepared for the shootout.
Following unsuccessful attempts from Doggett, Piccinich and Lake it was Mark Cooper who finally beat Kevin Carr with a no-frills rocket from the mid slot.
Matt Lane needed to score as he stared down Jackson Whistle, but the Giants goalie pulled off a shootout winning save for the second Sunday in a row to send the Belfast Giants home with two miraculous points, and a wide-open title race.
The Belfast Giants return home to The SSE Arena, Belfast on Wednesday 23rd February at 7pm, for a rematch with the Nottingham Panthers. This time, it’s for a place in the 2021/22 Challenge Cup Final. You do NOT want to miss this one. Tickets are on sale HERE!
Image credit: The Nottingham Panthers.