FIFE Flyers defenceman Jeff Caister was proud of the team’s performance despite the 3-2 defeat to Nottingham Panthers on Tuesday night in the Challenge Cup quarter-final first leg.
Flyers were missing their two top scorers, Kris Hogg and Casey Haines, and then lost Steven McAlpine to a broken collarbone early in the third period against the tournament holders.
Flyers hopes of reaching the semi-finals were hanging by a thread at 2-0 down, but they battled back to keep themselves in contention ahead of a tough second leg in Nottingham next Wednesday.
“I’m pretty proud of the guys tonight.” said Caister after the match.
“We are extremely short right now on some key players and it’s been like that for almost a month now.
“It’s been tough on the guys but tonight, and for the last little while, we’ve really strung together some good efforts in terms of working hard and battling.
“It’s kept us in a number of games, even though we’re out-numbered, especially talent-wise.
“Nottingham are the best team in the league from top to bottom and although we got a slow start, we hung around, got a couple of goals back, and the third period could’ve gone either way.
“Even though we lost we’ve still put ourselves in a good position for next week going into Nottingham, and more importantly, kept our confidence high going into a huge weekend against Hull.”
Key to Flyers comeback on Tuesday was their penalty killing exploits, particularly in the second period when they faced eight minutes of Nottingham powerplay.
“A penalty kill can be your best friend sometimes,” Caister explained.
“If you’re able to kill it off, especially like we did tonight against the league’s best powerplay, then it’s great for team mojo.
“You could tell we were getting energy from it and they were getting frustrated.
“Once we got the kill and got the two goals we had a lot of momentum going into third, but we didn’t get the bounces.”
As one of the team’s defensive lynch-pins, Caister takes pride in Flyers’ penalty-killing record, which is among the best in the league.
“We’ve been pretty consistent all year,” he said. “It’s a good four-man unit, and having Bryan Pitton back there is huge.”
There was little for a sparse Flyers crowd to be encouraged about in Tuesday night’s opening period as Nottingham opened up a two-goal lead without breaking much sweat.
The opening goal came from the stick of Matt Francis on 13.04 as Flyers’ Kyle Horne sat out two minutes for hooking.
Panthers doubled their lead three minutes later through David Clarke as Flyers were picked apart with ominous ease.
However, a goal on 27.52 against the run of play from Zach Carriveau - a cracker that flew in off the post - gave the home side an injection of belief.
A 2+2 penalty for Tommy Muir for accidental high sticks threatened to derail Flyers comeback, but some brave defending kept the visitors out, and then they hit them with a sharp counter-attack.
Steven McAlpine blazed a trail down the right wing and played a square pass for Danny Stewart to force the puck over the line for the equaliser.
A rink that had been deathly silent in the opening period was now roaring the home team on, and play swung from end to end during a back and forth third period.
But with 10 minutes left, David Ling ensured Panthers would take a lead back to Nottingham by spotting a gap at Bryan Pitton’s near post and smashing a shot high over the netminder’s shoulder.
Flyers scoring: Stewart, Carriveau (1+0) Keller, McAlpine, J.Pitton, Dolan (0+1).
Panthers scoring: Clarke (1+1) Ling, Francis (1+0) Lee, Fox, Benedict, Weaver, Myers (0+1).
SOGs: Fife (B.Pitton) 43; Nottingham (Kowalski) 25.
PIMs: 12-10. Referee: N.Wilson. Att: 722.