This weekend just gone, the Belfast Giants faced their latest challenge as they bid to win their first EIHL crown since 2014. Their opponents were Tom Barrasso’s Sheffield Steelers, whom they had shared a double header series in the House of Steel last month. Which side would finish out on top in the latest instalment between these two hockey heavyweights?
Saturday night was a special night for one current Giant, and a former Steeler as well. GB internationalist Colin Shields wasn’t just back in the Giants line up after missing the last three months with a serious eye injury, but Saturday night saw the one-time Philadelphia Flyers draft pick (he was drafted ahead of a certain Henrik Lundqvist, former future Giants team-mates Dan Welch and Sean McMorrow as well as Craig Kowalski who enjoyed considerable success with Nottingham Panthers) appear in his 585th game in Giants colours. This eclipsed the 584 which he had shared with home-grown hero Graeme Walton. Surely “Sheds”, alongside his cousin Stephen Murphy, are very likely candidates to have their respective shirt numbers retired when they finally hang up the skates.
The game also marked the first return to the Northern Irish capital for Steelers netminder Jackson Whistle, and defenceman Ryan Martinelli. Both players received a less than auspicious welcome from a lot of the Giants fanbase, in fact I think the word heckling would be most applicable. Knowing full well that they could spoil the Giants title ambitions, Steelers gave it a real good go in that opening period and went into the first period break two goals to the good. Strikes from John Armstrong and Anthony DeLuca (his 5th in his last three games) opened the advantage and gave Adam Keefe plenty to ponder. However, whatever Keefe said in that period break, seemingly fired up his team as they outshot their visitors 21-4 in that middle frame.
Yet despite that dominance, Steelers still led going into the final period of regulation time. Goals from inspirational captain Blair Riley and Kyle Baun had drawn the Giants back on parity, only for Jordan Owens (no, not the Crusaders striker who had found the net for the North Belfast-based football side earlier that day) to make it 3-2 Steelers just 40 seconds after Baun’s equaliser. So all to play for in the final twenty, and we had to wait just 127 seconds for the next goal. For the Giants faithful, it was joy as David Rutherford converted. With the game now tied at three apiece, we were being treated to yet another close game between these two sides.
The question was could either side edge ahead, and take the game away from the other? With just under five minutes left, Giants thought they had when Riley nabbed his second of the game to hand them a 4=3 advantage: the first time they had led in the game. However Steelers always keep battling away, which has become a staple under Tom Barrasso, and their persistence paid off with an equaliser with just 1:13 left in the game. With Whistle sacrificed for the extra skater, the netminder had certainly silenced his detractors with some great saves, the Steelers pushed and when Tyler Beskorowany padded away a Justin Buzzeo effort but only to former Giant Robert Dowd who send the rebound back with interest to make it a 4-4 hockey game.
Neither side could break the deadlock in the remaining regulation time, so we moved into overtime just as I predicted to a few friends before the first puck drop. How they scorned for me for making such a prediction then. Both sides had plenty of puck possession in overtime, and we were in the final two minutes of it when the game was decided. Giants advanced down the ice with Riley and Patrick Dwyer played a wee give and go, and it was the former 400 plus game NHL forward who got the decisive touch in front of Whistle to send the home support into fits of delirium: you only have to hear Simon Kitchen’s delight on Giants TV to capture the emotion. A dramatic ending to an equally dramatic game.
Blair Riley – in the goals again
Less than 24 hours later, the teams were at it again for round two. Steelers made one change from their Saturday line-up with former NHL goaltender Matt Climie given the start in place of Whistle, Owens being the Steelers import scratch, whilst the Giants were unchanged which meant Chris Higgins wasn’t ready for his second début despite being in the country and practicing with Keefe and Giants legend Shane Johnson. Would we get a repeat of the Saturday drama? Well, once more the Steelers outshot the Giants in that opening period but from one of their 12 shots on Climie, Giants made one count when the previous night’s hero Dwyer sent a cross crease pass on goal: hit former Giant Martinelli’s skate and squeaked its way behind Climie.
The second period against saw the Giants ramp the intensity, outshooting the Steelers 2 to 1 with Climie certainly the busier of the two goalies. However, the Giants had nothing to show for it but then again neither did the Steelers as that middle period ended scoreless which meant an interesting third period ahead with just that Dwyer strike separating the sides. Steelers levelled matters just 79 seconds into that third period, Evan McGrath continuing his own rich vein of form with a bullet of a shot that screamed its way through Beskorowany from the top of the right circle. Steelers have been dangerous this season shorthanded, and midway through that final period: scored their league leading 7th shortie of the season when John Armstrong blasted home. The Odyssey was stunned.
Giants needed a hero to step up, and they got one in the shape of Dwyer. The American forward netted twice in just 33 seconds, to overturn the deficit and put the Giants back ahead whilst completing his hat-trick haul. The whole place was rocking again, and it rocked even more with two and a half minutes left when Darcy Murphy added what appeared to be the insurance goal. Steelers chased the game and when Baun was called for a slashing minor, gambled with Climie sacrificed for the extra attacker. Giants went close a few times on the empty cage but there was a skipped beat or two of a teal heart when Jonas Westerling wristed an effort home with just 30 seconds left on the game clock. Could there be yet more drama? For those in teal, the Giants managed to get over the line and took game two by the close margin 4-3: mainly down to the efforts of Dwyer who captured his second man of the match award in as many nights.
With Cardiff winning both their weekend games, the title race is as tight as it was before. Just one point separates the Giants from the Devils who lead by one point but the Welsh side have played a game less. The Giants now turn their attentions to the next stage of their remarkable quadruple quest, that being the Continental Cup Super Final this weekend. It’s certainly getting interesting as we head into the business end of the season; strap yourself in for the ride!