Panthers defy the odds and injury to claim narrow play-off advantage at Wolverhampton
Peterborough Panthers defied the odds to pull off a dramatic 46-44 away win from the first leg of their play-off semi-final at Wolverhampton on Monday night.
The Crendon Panthers were very much up against it when they were reduced to five riders effectively from the start of the meeting as Michael Palm Toft, their most consistent performer over the second half of the season, was ruled out after a crash.
But Chris Harris, Scott Nicholls and Hans Andersen all took seven-ride shifts to ensure Panthers carded yet another away victory, and one which takes them a step closer to the Grand Final.
Palm Toft, who had hit double figures on both of his previous visits to Monmore this season, came to grief heading into the first bend of Heat 3 when he tangled with home man Ryan Douglas.
There were no disqualifications, but Palm Toft missed the re-run as he was receiving treatment for injuries to his fingers, and after racing once more in Heat 7 he was withdrawn from the meeting.
That left boss Rob Lyon juggling his resources under the injury rider replacement facility, whilst already operating the normal r/r facility for Ulrich Ostergaard.
What Panthers did have was an early cushion to defend as they made by far the best of conditions made tricky by early rain, with Harris and Nicholls getting them off to a flying start with a 5-1 over Sam Masters in Heat 1.
The visitors led by six points after Heat 4 and it could easily have been more as Wolves were fortunate to see Nick Morris re-instated into the initial running of Heat 3 after he fell on his first bend, whilst in the fourth race Andersen and Bjarne Pedersen held a 5-1 position for three laps before home skipper Rory Schlein charged past both on the inside.
Three successive Wolves 4-2s levelled the meeting, and Harris and Andersen were frustrated by a fast start by Luke Becker in Heat 8 which was a race the visitors had targeted.
But they did go back in front in the next as Andersen got the better of Morris whilst Pedersen held off Douglas who fell on the final bend.
Harris gated to victory in both Heats 10 and 11 to maintain a narrow lead, and Nicholls then rode a stormer in Heat 12 to overcome Morris and team up with Andersen for a massive 5-1.
That was immediately cancelled out by Schlein and Masters in Heat 13, leaving Panthers two up, but when Andersen came down on turn two in Heat 14 after being left little room going into the bend, he did not receive any benefit of the doubt and was disqualified.
Nicholls at least split Douglas and Broc Nicol in the re-run, meaning the scores were level at 42-42 going into last race – where Panthers did enjoy a stroke of fortune as Schlein touched the tapes and was disqualified.
Reserve replacement Nicol rode strongly in the re-run but couldn’t stop Harris taking his total for the night to 17 points, whilst Nicholls overcame Masters for third place in a tight scrap on turn four.
That gives Panthers a two-point lead heading into next Monday’s return at the East of England Arena – but boss Lyon is keen to stress the job is far from done.
He said: “It was backs to the wall with Tofty unfortunately crashing out, and a couple of refereeing decisions went against us as well, but the boys were superb again.
“I’m proud of them all. They took it to Wolves, and to get a result when faced with that sort of scenario was tremendous.
“But it’s only halfway, and Wolves are more than capable of coming to our place and getting a result, so we’ve got to focus on winning that meeting and going through.”
Panthers will also monitor the fitness of Palm Toft as the week continues, and will need to book a guest for the second leg should he be sidelined.
WOLVERHAMPTON 44: Rory Schlein 10+1, Ryan Douglas 8, Broc Nicol 8, Sam Masters 7+2, Luke Becker 6, Nick Morris 5+1, Leon Flint 0.
PETERBOROUGH 46: Chris Harris 17, Scott Nicholls 12+2, Hans Andersen 11+2, Bjarne Pedersen 5, Jordan Palin 1, Michael Palm Toft 0, Ulrich Ostergaard r/r.