Ice hockey: Sheffield Steelers 1 Nottingham Panthers 4

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First the plus point from last night: no League points were lost in this Challenge Cup meeting.

Now for unpalatable reality: Sheffield still have a hell of a way to go to compare with Nottingham.

Tim Spencer squares up to Panthers Brent Henley

Tim Spencer squares up to Panthers Brent Henley

Last season’s tournaments were dominated by ‘them up the road.’ Nottingham’s treble win directly led to a new coaching team and 10 new players at Sheffield.

But last night, it seemed little had really altered at all, between the two.

Shiny new scratch-resistance plexiglass, part of an expensive Arena refurbishment, only served to make more visible Panthers’ superiority in many areas.

However, the champions have had a more rigorous pre-season - and have had fewer new faces to gel into their system than Sheffield.

Nottingham took a slightly-unlikely first period lead, in the face of an avalanche of chances in and around Craig Kowalski’s goal.

Jeff Legue was either unlucky or wasteful, depending on your view. He had several chances - the worst miss being on a 3-on-1 breakaway. Before then the centreman shot over when he should have tested Kowalski.

When called upon, Kowalski picked up where he left off last year, pulling off cracking saves from Tim Spencer and Drew Fata.

While Panthers hadn’t enjoyed as many chances, they made one of them count at 6:29. Having just killed a penalty, Leigh Salters’s astute pass from behind the net was tucked home by Matt Francis.

The middle period was a poor spectacle for the big Arena crowd. Sheffield didn’t look like the team who had performed well in their Eastern Europe pre-season campaign - suffering from misplaced passes and a lack of vision.

Defensively, they were punished too.

A routine right point shot by Stephen Lee flashed in off the post for 0-2.

And while Jonathan Phillips stroked a reply back on the Power Play at 29:49, Panthers’ David Clarke was left to his own devices to add the visitors’ third.

Injured Steve Goertzen’s controlling influence was sorely being missed.

And even a heavyweight fist-fight between Tim Spencer and Brent Henley didn’t stir up the expected emotion.

When Max Lacroix skated clear on a breakaway he found Kowalski impossible to get past.

A massive last period was needed - but, sadly, it was more of the same.

There were give-aways in Sheffield’s own zone and headless-chicken attacks at the other end.

Nottingham called a time-out and then went further ahead. Francis, on his knees, did enough to pilot the puck past Frank Doyle.

n New coach Doug Christiansen gave a hint of his leadership style and hunger for perfection following Saturday night’s 4-2 League curtain-raiser victory against Coventry Blaze.

While pleased with a win, the boss was irritated by three offensive zone penalties they conceded.

His side had established a seemingly emphatic 3-0 lead (Jonathan Phillips, Danny Meyers Stefan Meyer) but then looked vulnerable as the Midlanders scored two Power Play replies through Ryan Ginand and Adam Henrich after clumsy penalties.

Christiansen rightly described the next goal as “the big one” - and it came after Tim Spencer set up Legue, short-handed.

Steelers outshot Blaze 39-29, although their Power Play was 0/7.