Virta walks on air to wing Eagles

Nottingham Panthers 2 Ayr Scottish Eagles 1
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The Independent Online
THE Nottingham Panthers won the Benson and Hedges Cup for the third time in its seven-year history at the Sheffield Arena last night, overcoming the holders and last season's Grand Slam champions thanks to two goals from their hard-hitting Finn Pekka Virta and a spirited all- round performance.

With only one home-grown player on view in Nottingham's Simon Hunt, it was hardly the "Battle of Britain" it had been billed as in some quarters but it was certainly a battle, fought to the bitter end by an Ayr side perhaps jaded after their midweek exploits in Germany and a Nottingham side who have come to regard this trophy as their birthright.

Given the volume of support for the Panthers in what is the next best thing to a home fixture for them, it was not surprising that they dominated the opening period despite their underdog status. Nevertheless, it was Ayr who took the lead halfway through it with a breathtaking goal.

After successfully defending the first powerplay of the game, the Eagles' captain Angelo Catenaro picked out David St Pierre deep in his own half. The Canadian was quick to spot his chance and skated skilfully through three challenges before lifting the puck high into the Nottingham net.

Within 30 seconds, though, the Panthers were level thanks to a smart snap-shot from Virta and the remainder of the period was virtually all Nottingham. Vincent Riendeau, the Ayr netminder, made a string of excellent saves, and while Panthers' skipper Jamie Leach hit the post, his coach Mike Blaisdell might have had cause to rue the missed opportunities at the break.

The second period was a far more even contest and it took another powerplay, this time a penalty against Ayr, to produce the only goal. With Trevor Burgess in the penalty box for the second time in the period, Jason Weaver, one of two new recruits controversially signed by Nottingham in the week leading up to the final, found Virta in space with a pass from behind the net. From midway into the Eagles' half, Virta's aim was true once more and the Panthers were ahead.

The final period was always likely to prove hard work for Jim Lynch's men, whose morale was sapped as much as their energy by losing in the final minute in Mannheim and just missing out on becoming the first British side to reach the second round of the European League.

With Weaver coming more and more into the game and Roy Mitchell resolute in defence, chances for the Eagles were conspicuous only by their absence. Even the incessant encouragement of the lone bagpiper behind the Ayr net had lost heart by the end and although Randall Weber and Mike Bishop had chances to make their victory a more emphatic one there was no denying the Panthers their hat-trick.

As a preamble to the main event, the Guildford Flames and the Telford Tigers upheld the honour of the British National League in the Plate final, with Telford going down by the odd goal in seven to finish runners-up for the second year in a row.