NOTTINGHAM, Great Britain – The Nottingham Panthers booked their place in the third round of the Continental Cup in Italy with a 3-1 victory over Juniors Riga in the winner-takes-all encounter.
Both sides went into the game with winning records and knew only the successful team would secure a place in Asiago next month.
Matt Francis, on a short-handed break, put the Panthers ahead at 5:24, before both sides had two players thrown out on 5+game penalties for roughing.
Matt Ryan and Bob Wren taking the penalties for Nottingham, with Rustams Beogvs and Patriks Skuratovs going out for Riga.
Panthers captain David Clarke, in his testimonial season to celebrate 10 years with the club, put his side further ahead at 16:03 with a rebound.
Riga pulled a goal back on a five-on-three power play through Edgars Siksna's shot from right side with 16 seconds left in the opening period.
There were no goals in the second period and the Panthers sealed their victory with a goal from Leigh Salters at 11:48 of the third period before 3,220 happy fans at the National Ice Centre.
Panthers coach Corey Neilson said: "I am so proud of my players. We didn't start the tournament well at all, but we improved game by game.
"The commitment and determination shown in the last two games was excellent.
"Our performance against Riga, where we lost two players for fighting and one to injury, was outstanding.
"It was a fantastic weekend and our supporters backed up all weekend and for that I am so grateful."
General manager, Gary Moran, added: "The supporters gave us so much backing all weekend.
"We created a bit of history by reaching round three for the first time in our history.
"The year 2013 has been very special for us with a Challenge Cup win, play-off final win and that Elite League title success.
"Now we are one step away from the Super Final of the Continental Cup and I am so proud of everyone in the organisation."
The battle of the two sides without a win in the tournament took place on Sunday afternoon and it was HYS The Hague (Netherlands) who secured third place with a 5-3 victory over Bipolo Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain).
Alan Van Bentem gave The Hague an early lead, before Tony Mannermaa's strike ensured the Spanish side were level at the end of the first period.
Mannermaa swung the game Vitoria-Gasteiz's way with his second, but Van Bentem then grabbed his second to level.
Ronald Wurm put The Hague ahead for a second time and Alex Henry extended the lead in the third period.
Van Bentem completed his hat trick to make it 5-2 and Evan Mackintosh's rebound ensured the Spanish side ended the tournament on a high with the final goal of the game.
Earlier in the tournament, Juniors Riga and The Hague got Group B under way on Friday as the team from Latvia won 8-3, with Deivids Sarkanis scoring twice.
Clarke, who played in his side's last two Continental Cup adventures in 2004 and 2006, then netted a brace as the UK champions beat Vitoria-Gasteiz 5-3 in the day's evening game.
Riga kept up their 100 per cent record by defeating Vitoria-Gasteiz 7-2 on Saturday afternoon with Arturs Sevcenko netting twice.
It meant the Latvians were top of the group with six points and Nottingham knew a regulation-time victory in the evening would mean a winner-takes-all showdown on Sunday.
Nottingham brushed aside The Hague with a six-goal third period to win 7-3 as Francis scored a hat trick, including a penalty shot.
It set up the thrilling final match on Sunday and the Panthers sent the large home crowd home happy, safe in the knowledge they could book their flights to Italy.
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