FC Hockey Media‘s Noel Gillespie is back with another deep dive into the Belfast Giants opponents for three games in four nights this week, spanning a Challenge Cup semi-final second leg and a crunch league home/away double header.
Smarten up on everything from systems, style of play and projected lines ahead of a huge weekend versus the Glasgow Clan!
Finn McCool is no stranger to this situation. The exact year is lost to the myths of time, but long ago a Scottish giant called Benandonner crossed the Irish sea to face the underdog Finn, possibly due to the unfeasible land bridge that he had built. On arriving in Ireland the Scottish giant was outwitted by Finn, who made him believe that he was a much bigger threat to him than the Scot believed. Finn sent Benandonner fleeing back to Caledonia, who irrationally destroyed a potential future World Heritage site on his retreat.
Coach Adam Keefe’s next task is to outwit his GB counterpart Pete Russell over a three game series against the Glasgow Clan, as the teams come together over a four-day stretch in Challenge Cup and Elite League action, the Giants looking to keep two of their three hopes of silverware this season on course. First up is the second leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final on Thursday night at the SSE arena. The Clan opened up a two goal lead in the two-legged affair at home in Renfrew inside the first two periods, thanks to goals from Matt Beca and Gerard Hanson, before a Kyle Baun snipe finished the scoring in the first leg.
Glasgow are one of the form teams in the league at present, currently holding the longest winning streak in the league and going unbeaten in their last four games. They have won ten and lost two games in all competitions since this time last month, including a 5-1 win against the Dundee Stars last Tuesday, to climb to third overall in the league standings.
Style of Play
Glasgow typically play an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck, sending two forwards into the offensive zone to win possession of the puck, with their third forward staying near the blueline until the Clan win the puck. They do seem over aggressive at times, with either the third forward pushing up before the puck has been won back or one of the first two forwards not cycling back to cover the third forward’s check, so they can let their opponents break on odd man rushes. The neutral zone is typically set as a 2-1-2 check as well, but I could see the Clan change this during the Cup game, since they could go with a 1-2-2 in each zone for a defensive forecheck and look for breakout passes to hit the Giants on the counterattack. It will be interesting to see if this happens during the game, as the Clan’s success has come through their more aggressive style.
The Clan defensemen already fit this change, as they like to make breakout passes to the forwards when they are in their defensive zone. Both of Glasgow’s wingers look to push up high in the zone against their opposite defenceman, available to receive a pass when the puck is turned over and break up ice. Glasgow have several defensemen, Matt Stanisz especially, who can get the puck to the forwards quickly to let them attack the offensive zone with speed. Their whole first line work hard on the forecheck, skate well together and create offense, with Matt Beca being the fifth highest points scorer in league play this year. They are playing well and will be a potent threat throughout the next three games for the Giants.
The second line features one Mr Brendan Connolly, well-known in Belfast as one of their top offensive players last season. He rotates from centre to wing with Craig Peacock in Renfrew, and can be a key cog in the team’s transition from defence to offense, often carrying the puck out of danger with his stickhandling ability. He has the fourth most goals in league play with 27 goals on the season, sandwiched by Belfast’s Darcy Murphy and Blair Riley with 28 and 26 goals respectively.
However. He is also well-known for his penchant for discussing the finer points of the game with the referees. At length. Usually around the penalty box door before once again taking his seat inside. Connolly sits fifteenth in penalty minutes taken in the Elite League overall this year with 74 PIMs, seventh amongst forwards, and the Giants would be in as good a position as any to exploit this, as they will surely try to get their former teammate riled up over the three games.
In tandem with the penalties, as much as I don’t like using plus/minus, when you combine Connolly’s +2 with his 56 points you see a big difference in those numbers, especially compared to most of his teammates. Take out his 14 powerplay points, and Connolly has been on the ice for 40 five-on-five goals conceded compared to 42 goals for, an issue that he has in common with Guildford’s top line. His usual linemates Craig Peacock and Guillaume Doucet fare better in this regard, but are still lower in plus/minus than you would expect for the points they have. Connolly is always a threat offensively, of that there is no question, as is Doucet, but his line could be the one to target defensively if the Giants are looking for weak points to take advantage of.
Stupka – Pitt – Beca
Peacock – Connolly – Doucet
Bjerrum – Haywood – Hanson
Tanski* – Howlett – Musil
Erhardt – Gutwald
Stanisz – Fitzgerald
Wilson – Sullivan
*Tanski rotates to defence as required
The Giants will have the rarity of being more rested than their opponents come Thursday after the Clan’s efforts on Tuesday. The team must keep the pressure on Cardiff by completely ignoring the Devils and focussing on three wins against Glasgow. The Giants have the firepower to beat the Clan despite Glasgow’s form and are playing well themselves, scoring points in eight out of the last ten league games. The Giants also have the special teams advantage, topping the league with their powerplay success rate of 27.27%, going up against Glasgow’s 80.35% penalty kill. At the other end of the ice, Glasgow’s powerplay runs at 18.98%, compared to Belfast’s league best 86.31% PK. The Clan are dangerous at the moment and none of these games are a certainty, but the Giants have every chance of progressing to the Challenge Cup final and taking four league points in their drive for the Elite League championship.
Just as Finn McCool was able to chase Benandonner back to Scotland, so the Giants will hope that Finn’s modern-day representatives can do the same to Glasgow, following them back to steal the extra two points in Renfrew on Sunday. The rollercoaster awaits for the latest installment of nervous excitement that this season is bringing.
Words: Noel Gillespie
Images: William Cherry / PressEye