Welcome to the first “Belfast Beat” of 2019.
I hope sincerely that you all enjoyed 2018, and saw in the New Year in your own individual ways and in various places. 2018 wasn’t a bad year for the Giants as they secured their first piece of silverware since 2014 when they captured the Challenge Cup in superb style against Grand Slam chasing Cardiff on the Welsh side’s home ice. However, the quest to win the club’s fifth league title (and fourth EIHL crown) remains the focus for Adam Keefe and his team. But it’s going to be a close run thing as this edition explains.
At the time of writing this piece, it’s safe to say that the race for the 2018-19 EIHL title is going to go one of three ways with the Giants firmly in the thick of it. Giants, defending champions Cardiff and Nottingham are the only three sides with 40 plus points in the bank as the season heads towards its usual dramatic conclusion. Fife currently lie fourth but they’re nine points adrift of the third-placed Panthers so unless someone escapes the chasing pack with a stupendous hot streak of form; the title is not going anywhere else bar the top three. Sorry but it’s true.
Let’s look at each contender.
Nottingham Panthers: Currently sitting third with 45 points accrued so far. A new look Panthers under Rich Chernomaz have been in the chase all season and are most people’s thoughts that they will be the first to fall short. The Panthers have played more games than the Giants and Cardiff, and that’s an important factor to consider. Equally so, they have blown very much hot and cold all season. One minute they will be awesome, and tear you apart then the next they can be absolutely plain awful. There’s just no consistency. Without the goals provided by Alex Guptill, the Panthers season would have been firmly sunk by now.
I firmly believe they will finish where they are now, third.
Cardiff Devils: No team in the Elite League has ever won three titles in a row. Coventry and Sheffield both have two in a row, as do the Devils presently but not three. History could be made if they overtake the Giants and take the honours once more. Despite the CHL campaign, which could hinder anyone off their game, the Devils have overcome a few blips here and there to stand just a single point behind the Giants with two games in hand as I write this piece. The double header in South Wales in January will be a decisive moment in the title race and if one side comes out of it with a convincing lead at the head of the table then it’s odds on they will win the title. They are the biggest danger to the Giants, that there is no doubting.
The Giants themselves: Leading the way with 49 points after 33 games, the Giants season has been built around a superb yet mammoth road trip where Keefer’s men recorded a superb 13 wins out of 16. With most of the remaining games on home ice, this should be a catalyst for that first league crown since 2013-14. However, unexpected losses against Manchester and Dundee have just creaked the Giants armour that little bit so much that the chasing Panthers and Devils have seen a glimmer of hope that the pacesetters are feeling the heat a bit. Of course, Keefer would not allow his charges to play no less than at 100 per cent: it’s how he played when he donned the teal. Tyler Beskorowany needs to be as good as he has been so far, and in Blair Riley the Giants have a captain leading from the front.
Of course, it would be great to see scenes like the below happen again. However, it might come down to a crunch double header as outlined earlier and probably a last day decider if the Giants don’t crumble. It’s gonna be a helluva of a ride, so strap yourselves in firmly. The boys in teal need your support more than ever.
Giants team photo of 2013-14 courtesy of waynehardman.com