After two weeks of heartbreak, the unspoken truth around the SSE Arena on Friday evening was that it was do or die time for the Belfast Giants.
An agonising Continental Cup final loss on sudden death penalty shots had given way to a 0 point weekend in Cardiff.
The reigning Champion Devils now held a commanding 11 point lead at the top of the Elite Ice Hockey League, and despite Belfast’s 2 games in hand, this weekend’s treble against the Fife Flyers (Fri/Sat) and road trip to Milton Keynes (Sunday) was critical to keep hopes of league glory alive.
The Belfast Giants had scratched Hunter Bishop for the encounter, joining long term injury layup Guillaume Gelinas in the stands. Chris Higgins made a welcome return after missing the trip to Wales last week on a pre-arranged trip to the States.
Fife meanwhile were without Forward #71 Marcus Basara and hometown Defenseman #3 Reece Cochrane.
After a choppy start to the first period, the Giants settled and controlled the offensive zone well for the better part of five minutes. Not only that, when the puck was turned over they were committing to their forecheck, a number of stiff hits delivered in the West End of the arena looking very much like a statement of intent.
A Jonathan Ferland tripping penalty at 4.25 sent Fife onto the Power Play, and it took just 31 seconds for them to open the scoring when Joe Basaraba played the puck across Tyler Beskorowany’s crease to Danik Gauthier who wrapped the net and tucked the puck home on the left post. (0-1)
The Giants continued with decent pressure after the drop, and were rewarded at 9.04 when Chris Higgins pounced on a puck played forward from behind the net by Kyle Baun, Flyers goaltender Shane Owen left alone and unable to match Higgins hands. (1-1)
Belfast struck again at 13.47 when a Colin Shields forecheck against the West End wall sent the puck out to Dustin Johner, who set up Jonathan Ferland for a low near post snipe from the left circle. (2-1)
And then, it was deja vu for the home side within the final minute of the period as Gauthier struck again, pulling the trigger from the left of the low slot into traffic and beating Tyler Beskorowany for the tying goal. Assists: Schaber, Basaraba (2-2)
The shot count read 15-12 in favour of Belfast as the period wound to a close.
A wild second period saw the Giants go 5 on 3 following successive Fife penalties. They wasted no time in making the visitors pay, scoring twice in just 50 seconds.
Patrick Dwyer fed Kyle Baun for a back door roofer on the right hand post at 30.22 (3-2)
Just 23 seconds later, Kyle Baun returned the favour, playing the puck to the right hand side for Curtis Leonard who once again found an open back door. (4-2)
And then, less than a minute later, Jonathan Ferland added to Shane Owen’s woes in the Fife goal, finding a Lewis Hook pass across the mid slot and releasing a thunderous slap shot from the East end’s left circle at 31.43 (5-2)
Todd Dutiaume immediately called a time out to settle his Flyers back into the game.
They did find twine at the end of the period, but it was courtesy of a defensive howler from Kevin Raine, with a soft turnover inside the Belfast zone. Joe Basaraba swiftly beat Tyler Beskorowany with assists from Blodoff and Cazzola at 39.19 (5-3)
SOG after 2: Belfast 31-17 Fife
The third period was an altogether much slower paced affair- which suited Belfast and their slimmer-than-expected two goal lead just fine.
Fife did little to pose a serious threat in the first ten minutes of the period, and despite a number of sniffs on goal, Adam Keefe’s men failed to put together much potent offense.
With 12.09 left in the game, the Giants Head Coach called a time out to add his final tweaks to the closing minutes.
Colin Shields sat for a hooking call at 53.16 and despite decent Fife pressure the PK unit was successful.
Fife attempted to pull Shane Owen within the game’s final two minutes, but Blair Riley found the net from the neutral zone with the Fife goalie stranded in the low slot.
The Belfast Giants home crowd took great pleasure in informing Owen that Belfast’s 6th was “all his fault” as time expired. (6-3)
A much needed return to winning ways, with two games to go on the weekend.