Ice hockey: Virta's reality sees off holders

THE FIRST trophy of the domestic season was settled in favour of a Nottingham Panthers side whose will to win the Benson & Hedges Cup for the third time proved stronger than Ayr Scottish Eagles' desire to become the first team in the competition's seven-year history to defend it successfully.

Last season's grand slammers - beaten 2-1 - were outplayed in the first and last periods of a tense match in which the netminders, Vincent Riendeau of Ayr and Trevor Robins of Nottingham, both former NHL men, distinguished themselves with some outstanding saves.

But it was the middle phase that turned out to be decisive. With Trevor Burgess off the ice, in the penalty box for the second time in the period, Nottingham's Finnish forward Pekka Virta took advantage of the powerplay to rifle home the winning goal, his second of the match.

The evening's entertainment for a near full house of around 8,000 at the Sheffield Arena had begun with the obligatory anthems, in Ayr's case "Flower of Scotland", although with no British players, let alone any Scots, in their line-up the Maple Leaf might have been more appropriate. Nottingham were only fielding one Englishman in Simon Hunt but their fans, heavily outnumbering those from north of the border, would have cheered for anything with a Panther on its chest.

The opening period lived up to their expectations despite Ayr taking the lead against the run of play with a scintillating solo effort from David St Pierre, who caught the eye on more than one occasion with the kind of weaving run that led to his goal. The Ayr captain, Angelo Catenaro, an Italian-Canadian previously with Rotterdam, earned the credit for the assist with an astute pass out of defence.

The opening goal came after 10.59sec and, very briefly, the wind was taken out of Nottingham's sails. But it took them just 23 seconds to strike back and Catenaro's opposite number, Jamie Leach, was the architect. Leach, a Stanley Cup winner in his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, worked an opening on the left before flicking the puck back inside the Virta and his instinctive drive flew into the roof of Riendeau's net.

The Panthers could, and perhaps should, have added one or two more before the first interval, Leach himself coming closest when he hit the post. After that the effects of Ayr's wearing trip and last-minute defeat by Mannheim in midweek looked to have worn off. But it was one of Nottingham's two last-minute recruits from North America, Jason Weaver, who began to make a real impact.

Weaver and Darcy Loewen had flown in just two days before the final as Nottingham's injury crisis showed no sign of abating, and it was some clever play by Weaver that was the turning point. From almost behind the Ayr net, he found Virta with an accurate pass which gave the Finn time to pick his spot and, thanks to a slight deflection, Riendeau was beaten again.

The final period was attrition rather than sensation but by then Ayr probably were feeling it and the sense that it was Nottingham's day had long since been apparent. It was a good day for the sport itself in this country too, a view enthusiastically endorsed by Ian Taylor, Great Britain's Olympic gold medal-winning hockey goalkeeper, who is now chief executive of the Ice Hockey Superleague.

"It was a great game, and a great advert for us," he said. You've got to have some sympathy for Ayr. They were all-conquering last year but I'm sure that no team is going to do a grand slam again."

Mike Blaisdell the triumphant coach, also paid tribute to his opponents. "They've got some great hockey players and they are tough to break down," he said.

"There are a lot of teams in the league that we would have beaten badly tonight because we came at them pretty hard, but they can weather a storm and they don't panic, ever."

As for Nottingham, Saturday's final was followed swiftly by last night's league encounter with high-flying Manchester, and, with another game at home to Bracknell tomorrow night, it seems there is no rest for the wicked Panthers.