It might have ended in a seventh straight home loss, but if their performance against the Nottingham Panthers told us anything it is that the Edinburgh Capitals will be scrapping for every remaining point.
A narrow 3-2 reverse in the first of a rare home double-header with Nottingham consigned the Capitals to the basement of the Elite League for a second straight season, but they will perhaps count themselves unfortunate not to have forced overtime in a pulsating finish at Murrayfield Ice Rink.
With Yevgeni Fyodorov absent and the Capitals’ fate sealed, Sean Beattie and Tyler Plews were handed starts on the top forward and defensive lines respectively, against a Nottingham side looking to build off a 4-1 win in Dundee on Friday night.
Panthers captain Brad Moran would twice go close, forcing a pair of saves from Travis Fullerton – the second after a sweet feed by Nottingham player/assistant coach David Clarke had picked him out. But Edinburgh certainly started brightly up the other end as Taylor MacDougall would sweep narrowly wide after good build-up play by Garrett Milan.
And after Jeff Brown had forced a save, Edinburgh were left cursing their luck. Michal Dobron’s attempted wrap-around try eventually found Matt Tipoff. The Canadian showed patience to wait for the opportunity to present itself before slamming the puck off the post.
The chances continued to be created and squandered. Jared Staal did superbly to strip Andy Sertich of the puck and then force Jindrich Pacl into a save from a tight angle. While up the other end, a bad bounce off the boards from a Jaroslav Hertl pass presented an opening for Erik Lindhagen, but Fullerton saved.
Edinburgh were very nearly architects of their own downfall however when a D zone turnover presented a chance for Moran, though Fullerton was there again to keep the scores level. Soon afterwards Lindhagen and Brown combined with the latter going close, under duress by Karel Hromas.
But after Alex Nikiforuk and Milan saw chances come and go for either side, Nottingham snatched the lead and then added another within 60 seconds. It changed the entire complexion of the game as the Panthers showed the sort of clinical finishing that all top sides possess.
The first came after an unfortunate slip by Michael D’Orazio at the blue line allowed Ollie Betteridge to break. He found Latvian forward Deivids Sarkanis who managed to squeeze the puck through Fullerton, with teammate Steve Lee for company, to hand the visitors the lead with 11:09 to play.
There was little time for the Capitals to draw breath before the Panthers struck again. Conceding goals in bunches has been a problem all season and it reared its head here, with Sarkanis this time turning provider for Betteridge. At 2-0 it looked to be a long way back.
By this stage it was all Nottingham. Undeterred by losing Betteridge momentarily to a facial injury, the Panthers had chances to add to their lead. Brown forced two saves before Robert Lachowicz fed Sarkanis as Fullerton stood tall to save.
Edinburgh though were determined to finish the period strongly. A Dobron slap shot nearly had the desired effect as Beattie narrowly deflected over, before the Capitals’ best chance of the period came and went.
It owed much to the vision and deft touch of Tipoff to pick out Pavel Vorobyev who attempted to beat Pacl with the backhander. To the Czech netminder’s credit he watched the puck all the way and made an outstanding glove stop to keep the score at two.
Ian Schultz would then have a half chance as he attempted to jam the puck home from in front of Pacl, but Nottingham did just enough to resist Edinburgh’s advances.
The Capitals were nearly undone again when Brown found himself all alone in front, but again the superb Fullerton was alive to keep the score down amidst a barrage of Panthers pressure – the visitors outshooting the hosts 18-6 in the opening period.
The middle frame, by contrast, began in rather cagey fashion. Hertl would force Pacl into work early into the second, before Lachowicz tested Fullerton up the other end with the Panthers’ first chance of note.
It was Sarkanis who again posed the greatest threat as he twice forced saves from the Edinburgh netminder as Nottingham threatened a third. That promise nearly became reality when Brown tipped narrowly wide from Lee’s blue line drive.
But to Edinburgh’s credit they began to assert themselves in this one. Milan and Staal combined to tee up Jacob Johnston, but the Edinburgh captain could only divert wide.
As it happens though the goal wasn’t long in coming. The persistence of Mason Wilgosh, working behind the net, fashioned a chance for Schultz out in front. And though he could only find the pad of Pacl, Hromas was perfectly positioned to gobble up the rebound from in front. The game was certainly on at 2-1 with 9:51 remaining.
Nottingham nearly added another immediately though. Edinburgh fell asleep as Moran ghosted in on a one-on-one chance with Fullerton again bailing out his teammates with a smart save. The Nottingham captain would have been disappointed not to have cashed in on that gift.
Both sides would create chances as the middle period began to tick down. Schultz forced Pacl into work with a stinging drive before Lindhagen and Brown went close for the visitors. Not to be denied, Vorobyev got in on the shot action off a face-off win, before Dan Spang forced a neat glove stop with a backhander of his own.
Any hopes the Capitals had of keeping the deficit at one were wiped out with 2:10 left in the period. Stephen Schultz found half a yard, evaded the attentions of a Capitals defender and then lifted the puck high over Fullerton’s glove to re-establish Nottingham’s two goal cushion. It was a cool finish in truth.
However any fears that the floodgates would open were quickly laid to rest as Edinburgh put in a tireless shift in the final period to set up quite the dramatic finish to this one.
Things nearly got worse though when Brown struck an effort that took a wicked deflection. With a bobbling puck it could have gone anywhere, but Fullerton reacted well to adjust and make the save.
Nikiforuk almost had a solo goal to savour as he put a nice move on Hertl and bore down on goal only to be wrapped up out in front. Nikiforuk was then involved on a quick break as a stretch pass had the Panthers on a two-on-one chance. He unselfishly squared it for the arriving Clarke and Nottingham’s third looked destined to arrive, only for the forward to fire wide when well placed.
Next to go close was Staal who collected Johnston’s feed and fired wide, before the same fate met Panthers makeshift defenceman Logan MacMillan up the other end.
A D’Orazio slap shot from Rihards Grigors’ pass threatened to cause all sorts of problems as the puck cannoned into the body of Pacl, before being hacked to safety. Both Hromas and Tipoff then came close to reducing the arrears for Edinburgh who were clearly putting up a fight in an attempt to claw the game back.
After Geoff Waugh forced a glove-stop, a scramble in front involving former NHLer Brian McGrattan and others nearly brought a decisive fourth for Nottingham. McGrattan and company kept digging for the puck but a diving Fullerton did just enough to cover and force the whistle.
Edinburgh’s commitment to the cause was on display soon afterwards as D’Orazio threw himself in front of Brown’s effort, the deflection taking the puck narrowly wide. It was a potential goal saving block, the kind that permitted the Capitals’ comeback attempts to take shape.
Both McGrattan and Dobron would have efforts for either side respectively, before the Capitals pulled Fullerton in favour of an extra skater with 1:38 remaining as the hosts threatened a trademark comeback.
They almost conceded an empty-net goal and may well have done had it not been for the intervention of captain Johnston, who flung himself in front of Moran’s attempted shot from centre ice.
Johnston was again in the thick of the action, putting the puck on a plate as Edinburgh grabbed a second with 43 seconds to play. His sweet saucer pass was perfectly weighted for Vorobyev who ghosted in to notch up his 21st goal of the season in all competitions. Game on.
And Edinburgh nearly forced overtime in dramatic fashion. D’Orazio’s effort from the blue line with seconds remaining crashed into the side netting, possibly via a tip in front. Despite Edinburgh’s best efforts, however, it was the Panthers who claimed the spoils.
Corey Neilson’s side built off their 4-1 win in Dundee to notch up the points in the first of two meetings between the sides this weekend. A spirited third period showing came up just short for a Capitals side who are determined to fight and scrap for every last remaining point.
The season is far from petering out, despite Edinburgh being out of play-off contention. Round two with the Panthers promises to be just as enthralling as Edinburgh get ready for the first of their three remaining fixtures on Sunday.
Forward Matt Tipoff, who struck the iron early on, feels Edinburgh played fairly well despite their defeat and believes the players owe it to the Capitals fans to continue fighting until the end of the season.
“It wasn’t too bad. It was nice to see that we could come back and compete with a team of their level. We definitely don’t want to get down two early and it was kind of tough to come back from that. They’re a really solid team over there, but we’re pretty happy with how we battled and we almost tied it up at the end there.
“We’ve come back from leads like that all year. We were pretty confident in our dressing room that we could come back and we wanted to make sure that we put a good game out there for the fans who’ve supported us all season. We’re not going to give up and at two nothing I wouldn’t say it was the turning point, it wasn’t the way we wanted to start but it was good that we came back and made it interesting.
“Any athletic person is going to try as hard as they can every time they’re out there. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or embarrass the organization, especially for the core group of fans who come out every single game and watch us play. We want to put a good product out on the ice for them, unfortunately this season didn’t go the way that we planned but, in saying that, we are still going to try as hard as we can to finish out the season.
“We can have a quicker start,” said Tipoff when asked what lessons the Capitals could take into the second part of the double header with Nottingham. “They’re extremely structured over there and it’s no secret that it is something that we’ve lacked quite a bit this season. It is definitely tough to keep up with the teams that are extremely prepared night in and night out but, in saying that, our effort level just has to match theirs and be even greater. We have to be tight in the D zone, we can’t turn pucks over, just all the regular things that come with a hard-nosed game of hockey.”