FC Hockey Media‘s Noel Gillespie gives his take on a do-or-die weekend for the Belfast Giants, as the league leading, reigning Champion Cardiff Devils come to town…
I didn’t intend to run with the rollercoaster theme through these articles, but this is how the season is panning out for the Belfast Giants as they chase their first Elite League title win since the 2013/14 season.
Whilst previous league campaigns may have felt more like Portrush’s own Barry’s Big Dipper, with a few thrills but mostly just nice views, this year has become more like Alton Towers’ Nemesis, with the Giants leading the league, then dropping to eleven points behind Cardiff, then coming back to briefly catch and pass the Devils on the live league table. The Panthers beat Cardiff, the Lightning were beating the Devils and then they weren’t, and then a great run of form for the Giants ended in a frustrating collapse to the Glasgow Clan last Sunday night, having beaten them in the Challenge Cup and the league in their two previous games. Much like the Alton Towers behemoth, there are still plenty of twists and turns yet to come this season before the silverware is handed out.
Belfast’s current nemesis the Cardiff Devils come to town this Friday and Saturday night, currently holding a three-point advantage in the title race before the teams face off in the SSE arena. Since they last met, the Devils have won five and lost three league games, with the Giants having an 8-1-1 record in the league in that time, whilst also qualifying for the Challenge Cup Final through two legs against Glasgow. The Giants would likely have taken your hand off for a three-point gap on the 21st January, when they looked almost out of league contention after losing both games in Cardiff.
There isn’t a blood and guts rivalry between the two teams similar to the Giants and Sheffield last year, or the Coventry vs. Nottingham derby, or Derek Campbell and the crossbar. The rivalry is more akin to the Coventry Blaze of old, two teams at the top of the league battling for championships over a number of years. Cardiff all but won the league last year in the SSE arena, and whilst it is too early for the Giants to get one hand on the trophy this weekend, a four point weekend could give them the momentum and belief to go on and lift the trophy whilst getting some manner of payback in stopping Cardiff doing the same thing once again in the SSE arena.
The form book goes out of the window for a game like this. I wrote about the Cardiff Devils for the previous double-header, and not much has changed for them. Mike Hedden has had some success playing with Joey Martin and Sean Bentivoglio recently, with James Livingston getting some minutes with Charles Linglet and Stephen Dixon. Gleason Fournier and Joey Martin have been impressive as usual, although I still believe you can put Fournier under pressure in his own zone. For the Giants, Jordan Smotherman has had an immediate impact on the team with five points in six games, giving the Giants a dangerous top nine, with Lewis Hook dropping to the fourth line to give them a threat as well. Darcy Murphy continues to be the Giants’ most productive player five on five, with Blair Riley not far behind.
But these games are usually more about who can outwork their opponents. Both teams know the damage they can do to their title rivals. The Giants can’t win the league this weekend, but they would almost be back to where they started after the last double-header between the two with anything worse than a split weekend. Win both games, and the Giants will have completed the comeback and will lead the league by one point. The Devils will still have a game in hand, but points on the board win leagues, and both teams still have to face the Clan, the Flyers and the Steelers before the end of the season.
This weekend is sure to be one to remember, as both the Giants and Devils gear up for a weekend of playoff hockey. The Devils can get one hand on the trophy. If the Giants want to win the league, they have to stop that.
I can’t wai… Actually, can we hold off a week or two, let the league settle a bit?
Fair enough. I can’t wait…
Words: Noel Gillespie
Images: William Cherry / PressEye