NORTH RICHLAND HILLS – Midlothian entered Thursday’s game with Keller short on players,   missing its head coach and facing a crowd that was not on its side. The one thing it did have was energy. And that was almost enough.

An inspired effort against Western Division-leading Keller put the Panthers in good position to win but in the end it just wasn’t quite enough. Keller used four third period goals to rally from a deficit and eke out a 6-4 win.

“They brought it in the third and we laid down a little bit. I think the emotion was there, the desire was there,” assistant coach Cliff Parker said. “They just out-hustled us in the third, they beat us to every puck, they dominated our zone. They did exactly what we did to them in first and second (periods).”

The Panthers (12-6-1) have been without Tyler Colburn and Matthew Bramhall the last few weeks, shrinking the bench.

The depth took an even bigger hit on Thursday as Joseph Dancy could not play due to the flu. Midlothian called up three junior varsity players to fill those spots and while they played well it simply wasn’t the same.

Compounding all of this, coach Ryan Pfeiffer had a prior obligation to coach a select team he also leads. If he had been a no-show at that game, his team would have lost and been eliminated from the playoffs.

Despite all that, the Panthers came out ready to play.

After falling behind just 19 seconds into the game, Midlothian responded with three straight goals in the first period. McClain Williamson started that rally by taking a Trent Newman assist into the net to tie the game. Less than four minutes later, Blake Parker found the back of the net off a Brent Jones assist. At that point, the Panthers had two goals in just three shots on net.

The scoring surge was capped by Trent Williams’ goal from Jason Spencer and Tanner Dickerson assists. Keller answered early in the second period with a goal but the Panthers had a respond off the stick of Newman, who took a Williamson assist in for a goal and a 4-2 lead.

Along the way, Midlothian started every period by pounding the walls until the puck dropped and celebrated every goal in dramatic fashion. The emotional surge put them in position. It also helped let them down a bit.

Keller tied the game within the first two minutes of the third period, took a lead with under four minutes left to play and added an insurance goal with under a minute left. It was small emotional letdown to an otherwise exciting contest.

“We played hard. I think if we had a couple more strong players with us it would’ve been a lot better but we played great tonight. They just got a couple lucky goals there at the end,” Newman said.

The loss snaps Midlothian’s eight-game win streak with just two games left in the regular season. The top eight teams from the two divisions make the playoffs and the Panthers are currently fourth in the Western Division race with 12 wins. Only one team in the east (Highland Park) has more wins (13) meaning a win over Garland will lock up a spot and the season finale against Western Division No. 2 Mansfield will only help the playoff seeding.

As the team exited Brahmas Arena there were players still excited about how the game played out. The team described the battle as the equivalent of a state championship fight with many predicting it wouldn’t be the last time these two teams will face each other.

Until then, the Panthers are focused on one thing – Mansfield.

“We wanted that game bad but we’re coming in strong on Mansfield next week,” Newman said.