Staying in the Hunt

After picking up six points out of six last weekend, the Stena Line Belfast Giants headed into another busy week of action. There was a Challenge Cup semi-final first leg as well as two more testing home games as the quest continues. How would it pan out? As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad after all.

The Giants began their week with the first leg of their Challenge Cup semi-final against Pete Russell and his ever improving Glasgow Clan. It was a return to his roots for the legendary Colin Shields but that’s where the sentiment ends. It was a nervous opening period, but Clan got the one that mattered most when Matt Beca netted with just four seconds left in it. The men in purple celebrated again early in the second when Swede Gerard Hanson put in their second, and then it got tasty. Clan’s Czech defenceman Michal Gutwald and Jonathan Ferland had a square go, with the Clan man getting the extras for instigation. The resultant powerplay saw Kyle Baun reduce the arrears.

However, try as they might, the Giants couldn’t make any more in-roads past Clan’s impressive netminder Joel Rumpel. With a one goal lead going into the second leg on Valentine’s Night, this tie is evenly poised. If I was Adam Keefe, and I am not, I would have taken this every time.

The weekend would bring two more home games as the chasing down of Cardiff continued. First up was Saturday night and Danny Stewart’s Coventry Blaze in opposition. Easy regulation win most would say, two teams with differing fortunes and at opposing ends of the table. That looked good in an entertaining opening period as the Giants raced into a 3-0 lead thanks to Ferland (shorthanded), Patrick Dwyer and Kendall McFaull. However, Blaze weren’t rolling over and when their top scorer Ben Lake reduced the lead to 3-1 early in the second: the warning signs were there. Dustin Johner restored the three goal midway through with a powerplay marker but Blaze wouldn’t go away without a fight as they ended up on parity by the end of that second period thanks to goals from former Nottingham Panther Alex Nikiforuk and a brace from Shawn Pauly.

darcymurphy
Darcy Murphy: Scorer of a sublime goal. Picture – bbc.co.uk

When Ross Venus scored Blaze’s fifth of the night, shorthanded, the pressure was on particularly when news coming from Manchester was trickling through. Yet the Giants dug deep again and a powerplay marker from Josh Roach levelled it a 5-5 with 8:23 left on the clock. It needed a spark of magic to win and inside the final two minutes, Darcy Murphy provided it. Picking the puck deep inside his own zone, the Canadian forward went through the Blaze defence like a knife through hot butter to score a sensational game winner goal. A goal capable of winning any game at any level. With Cardiff sliding to a 3-1 loss in Manchester, that lead had been narrowed further to just three points.

Another tough game was to follow as third placed Nottingham Panthers arrived on the Sunday, a game which saw newest Giant Jordan Smotherman make an early debut since signing from DEL side Iserlohn Roosters. An explosive opening period saw Baun and Johner put the Giants two ahead but two quick replies from Tommy Hughes and former NHL power forward Chris Stewart, levelled it. Baun (again) and Murphy made it 4-2 before everyone’s favourite pantomime villain Robert Farmer made it 4-3 with 11 seconds left in that opening frame. A single strike early in the second from Panthers Jon Rheault made it 4-4 and so we entered another tense final period; and you thought we’d had enough of that on Saturday. Not a chance!

Giants seemed to have put some breathing space between themselves and the Panthers when Johner completed his hat-trick but GB internationalist Brett Perlini made it a one goal game with 82 seconds left on the powerplay. Could the visitors force overtime and provide a bump in the road? Thankfully for the Teal Army, Baun’s hat-trick goal (and fifth point of the night) just 18 seconds after that Perlini strike was enough to give more breathing and the win was secured when Smotherman marked his debut with goal number eight and eight seconds after that Baun goal. So another goal fest but for the Giants, another win chalked up. With the Devils coming from behind to defeat the Steelers 7-3, it makes everything still interesting.

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Hat-trick for Johner on the Sunday. Picture – loways.com

It’s hard to pick a moment of the week, especially when in one game you have two players scoring hat-tricks. However, I’m going to go with Darcy Murphy as my first ever Belfast Beat Moment of the Week. That strike which he sealed the win over Coventry on Saturday was sublime, if you had seen someone like Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby pull that off then you would have been creaming yourself. Hard to argue; but hey ho that’s my opinion. The hunt goes on and that double header against the Devils in the “O” looms larger. The Giants are firmly in Cardiff’s windscreen, I still believe that those games will determine the destiny of the 2019 EIHL title. It’s a shame someone has to finish runner-up!

Thanks for reading.

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