As the second half of the season pushes on, you get a sense that the points available in each game matter just that little bit more, and the Devils stayed top of the EIHL table with a 3 – 1 victory over the Manchester Storm on Saturday night.
Coming into the meeting the Devils have had the Storms number all season, a huge difference from last year. In three meetings between the Devils and Ryan Finnerty’s Storm side so far this season, Cardiff have taken all three wins, with Manchester earning one point from an overtime loss.
Rewind to last season and it was a completely different story where the Storm won three out of the four meetings between the sides, earning a point in an overtime loss to take seven of a possible eight points in their fixtures against Cardiff.
But it’s a different Storm side this year having different fortunes. Sure some key guys are back like Mike Hammond, and other guys like Ciaran Long have stepped up in a huge way, but the Storm haven’t been the same side as last year.
But they showed glimpses of it last night.
The Storm lined up in a similar fashion last night, with Dane Byers and Luke Moffatt on their top line, while Dallas Ehrhardt resumed his top line defensive work.
It was the top line for the Storm that looked the most promising. Coming out of the gates they looked completely in control, Luke Moffatt was orchestrating everything going forward with Byers crashing the net, and with Linsmayer buzzing around the zone, it gave the Storm a few good looks early on. The issue they had was it was a lot of attempts at a cross-crease pass, slipping one back door or one pass too many that meant they weren’t getting the puck on net too much, so despite a great start they had nothing to show for it.
On the home bench, it was a very similar look for Andrew Lord who was only without Joey Haddad in his forward ranks so Evan Mosey stepped up to that position.
With the Storm running the show in the opening five minutes, defensively the Devils had to settle down early doors. Perhaps they expected to do their usual routine of win the first face off and dominate their way into an early goal that we’ve seen a few times in the Viola Arena this season, so perhaps the fantastic start for Manchester shocked them a little but on more than one occasion the Storm had a man wide open back door as the Devils hounded the puck carrier, but luckily they didn’t surrender anything.
We finally saw the deadlock broken just over the midway mark of the first, a first shot by Gleason Fournier wasn’t completely dealt with by Matt Ginn with a juicy rebound coming straight off him, and Mike Hedden snuck in from the right hand side unchallenged and unnoticed by the Storm to pounce on the loose puck and fire in his ninth goal of the season, to give the Devils a break after being under siege to start the game.
Credit to the Storm who’s heads didn’t drop, they stuck with their game plan perfectly for most of the contest and responded by trying to get offensive zone time again, really causing the Devils a bit of worry in the opening frame.
Eventually they got their break. Mark Louis came out to challenge the shot by Dallas Ehrhardt and managed to block it, but it spilled favourably to a wide open Mike Hammond, and with Ben Bowns trying to track where the puck had gone through a sea of bodies, he didn’t see the shot from Hammond coming until it was already on its way past him to tie the game up, and send it to the second period as a 1 – 1 scoreline.
Neither side could add further goals in the second period, but not for lack of trying by the Devils who came up against a hot goalie in Matt Ginn, turning away 25 of 26 shots through 40 minutes of play, while again the Storm looked dangerous at times but weren’t getting enough rubber to Ben Bowns who had only faced 13 in the opening two periods.
It was much of the same in the third especially from the Storm who had come to South Wales with a game plan they stuck too right until the bitter end.
Given the Storms reputation you’d expect that maybe it would be a busy night in the penalty box, but they were intelligently physical, playing the body when they needed to, aggressive on the forecheck and on the puck carrier, and managed to get through 60 minutes without giving away a penalties (an attitude by the officials to let both sides play a lot helped that especially later in the third).
But again, despite executing the game plan perfectly to not allow the league’s best powerplay to go to work, Bowns had another quiet period. Just five shots to stop in the third, all of which were relatively routine saves too meant the Storm were on the back foot as the Devils kept digging away at the other end, trying to get something going to take the lead once more, but Ginn was standing on his head
When you need something spectacular to beat the goalie, you call on somebody spectacular. Enter Gleason Fournier.
So many times in his Devils career we’ve seen him create something out of nothing, and right when the Devils needed it most, he did it again.
It’s just as incredible as the first time he did it, picking up the puck with speed behind his own goal line, Fournier skated his way through the entire Storm team, dummying his way past the last man Riley Stadel before roofing his effort past Matt Ginn who couldn’t do anything to stop Fournier from adding his team leading 15th goal of the season, in just another goal for his growing list of spectacular finishes.
Ginn held strong as long as he could but couldn’t stop the Devils grabbing a third late in the game. After looking frustrated and playing a more physical game than usual, Matt Pope sealed it, ducking the shoulder to get past the defenseman before cutting right out in front of net and waiting for the five-hole to open, calmly slotting it between Ginn’s legs while under heavy pressure to seal the victory for the Cardiff Devils, their fourth in a row and eighth in their last 10 games to remain top of the EIHL standings, and keep Manchester on the outside looking in when it comes to the late playoff push.
Cardiff would’ve liked a bit of help from Sheffield last night but an overtime win for the Giants keeps them just one point behind the Devils, while Fife’s dismantling of the Nottingham Panthers mean Andrew Lords men face a tough road trip to Kirkcaldy to stay top of the table at the end of the weekends action, while Manchester just need more of the same (with a touch more shooting) against the Nottingham Panthers on Sunday to try and slowly claw their way into playoff contention.
Feature Image – Richard Murray/CardiffDevils.com