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Imports litter the roster of high-flying Panthers

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com
Founded in 1946 and reformed in 1980 after a 20-year absence, the Nottingham Panthers have been a mainstay on the British hockey scene for more than a half-century. While the organizational structure of hockey in the United Kingdom has changed several times over the last 29 years, but Nottingham remains a fixture.

There are a series of tournaments over the course of the UK Elite League season, and Nottingham last won the Challenge Cup two seasons ago and the playoff championship the prior season. If the Panthers keep up their current pace, the club has a good shot at winning some hardware this season.

The Panthers have been on a recent surge and have opened a lead in the Elite League, with 26 points in 20 games. Hot on their heels is Coventry, which has 24 points and three games in hand. The only other clubs in striking distance are Belfast (22 points), Newcastle (20), and Cardiff (19).

Like many teams in the league, the Panthers feature an extensive array of import players, comprising nearly half the roster. Canadian-born player/coach Corey Neilson's team includes seven fellow Canadians and an American. A defenseman, the 33-year-old Neilson spent most of his North American career in the ECHL after being drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the third round of the 1994 Entry Draft. The 6-foot-5 blueliner is in his third season with Nottingham. To date this season, he has 4 goals, 23 points and 49 penalty minutes in 24 games.

NHL fans may recall Cameron Mann patrolling the right wing for the Boston Bruins (and very briefly for the Nashville Predators) during the late 1990s and early 2000s. After spending five seasons in Germany's DEL and a season in Finland's SM-Liiga, Mann joined Nottingham over the summer, and has 10 goals (3 on the power play) and 19 points in 21 games.

The club also boasts the Elite League's leading scorer, right winger Jade Galbraith. After four seasons of bouncing around the ECHL and playing in both the DEL and the German minor leagues, Galbraith joined Nottingham last season. This season, he has paced the UK circuit with 38 points (14 goals) in 24 games. His linemate, Sean McAslan, is third in the league with 15 goals and 33 points. McAslan previously played in the American Hockey League and the ECHL, as well as a season in Denmark.

Drafted in the third round of the 2002 Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, defenseman Dominic D'Amour is in his first season in the UK after playing in the ECHL, AHL and the top league in Italy. He has shown a deadly shot from the point and has 6 goals.

Thirty-four-year-old goaltender Kevin St. Pierre is playing in his first season overseas after spending more than a decade playing in various North American minor leagues. His 2.91 goals-against average and .910 save percentage rank fourth among the starting goaltenders in the high-scoring league.

Among the native Brits on the team, 28-year-old forward David Clarke leads the way with 11 goals and 25 points, to go along with 46 penalty minutes. A native of Peterborough, England, Clarke played four seasons with the Panthers before spending a season in Italy with HC Alleghe. He then elected to return to Nottingham.

"Why would anyone want to play anywhere else in this country?" Clarke said on the Panthers' Web site. "This is a great organization and it is a great city with great fans."

Nottingham had been neck-and-neck with four other clubs for the league's top spot until a recent surge put pressure on the other teams to make up the gap with their games in hand.  The Panthers recently won a pair of road games, downing Hull, 5-2, and beating the Cardiff Devils, 5-3.

The latter game was delayed nearly three hours and finished close to midnight because the Devils' equipment had not arrived after a match the previous night against the Belfast Giants in Northern Ireland. The tilt also saw McAslan and forward Kevin Bergin pick up their 100th career Elite League assists and Neilson register his 100th career point.
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