The Belfast Giants sit on top of Group C of the Champions Hockey League as they opened their account with a 5-4 victory over Czech Extraliga Regular Season winners, Bílí Tygři Liberec. In a game fraught with physicality the Giants upset the odds and took all 3 points on offer.
Bobby Farnham opened the scoring, on the powerplay, 120 seconds into the game, firing home on a feed from Liam Reddox and Jordan Smotherman to send the SSE Arena into a fit of excitement and bring a belief that the odds on defeat, predicted by so many, may have been misjudged.
In what was to become a cat and mouse game on the scoreboard, Libor Hudáček levelled proceedings at 7:21, the visitors also opening their account with a PP marker.
Yet the Giants continued to press, unabated. They had already rang the metal work a few minutes before the Liberec goal however an impressive performance from the visiting netminder Justin Peters would stifle and frustrate the Giants throughout the game. But Patryk Wronka, new to the line up and an instant fan favourite with his electric pace and quick hands, somehow found an opening as he latched onto a rebound save from Peters and lifted high over the sprawling netminders leg and into the goal through a tight gap. 2-1 Belfast 11:26 into the game.
As the first period proceeded, the temperature on the ice began to rise. Physicality and off the play fracas from both teams served to stoke the game and the atmosphere in the SSE Arena. Giants fans excitement fuelled by the lead in the game and the “don’t let up” attitude of their men in teal.
The excitement was mildly tempered when Ronald Knot levelled the scores at 2-2 on 16:15. Adam Keefe, however, was aware of what was keeping the Giants nose in front on the ice and instructed his men to “Keep in their faces”, the TV Mic picking up the Giants coach’s insistence that the physical game was unsettling the visitors.
Liberec had arrived in Belfast that same afternoon on a chartered flight. The suggestion that they required no preparation for this game could be taken, by some, as an insult to their hosts as they stepped off a 3 hour flight from Prague to play their opening game.
Yet the first 20minutes no doubt gave them cause for alarm, this was not as much a formality as they had possibly expected.
Subsequently the second 20minutes would bring the fire of competition to life and Liberec’s physical prowess, highlighted as their strength in this competition, would be put to the test.
Three and a half minutes into the second period and for the first time in over a decade, the name Ward was written on the Belfast Giants goal scorers list. This time Brian Ward, emulating his namesake of Colin who scored such a memorable goal back in the Continental Cup run of 2002-03, was to add a marker of his own and once again put the home side into the lead.
What was to follow was a series of scuffles, hits, and ill-tempered play that would test both teams and officials alike.
A hit from Matt Pelech was deemed fine by the referees, not so by the opposition who in their attempts for retribution had members of the Liberec team stretching from the bench in-play to get to the new Giants Captain.
The idea of “The Dark Arts” is one thing, outright cheapshot play is another, and as the Giants continued to pile on the pressure, the visitors’ embarrassment began to build. Their current plight and under-estimation of their opponents forced them to continue to try and goad Belfast and pull the home team into penalty trouble.
The Giants, for all their positives, did fall for the Liberec tactics on too many occasions, yet interesting calls on the likes of Bobby Farnham and Jean Dupuy brought disdain from the Giants crowd and bemusement from those involved.
A horrible high hit on Giants Jesse Forsberg was to take the Giant’s D-man from the game, no doubt in retaliation from Liberec for the Pelech hit earlier in the game, yet no call was made on this one despite it being, arguably, the worse hit of the two with the referee watching from only a few feet away.
Still the scoring continued and Libor Hudáček netted his second of the game at the half way mark which brought the scores level one more time and thankfully for the last time.
The Giants were to lose another D-man in a fiery exchange when Kevin Raine was goaded into a fight with Jan Ordoš when the Liberec forward refused to let go of Raine’s stick off the boards. CHL rules mean a fight leads to a 5+Game and the Giants defensive corps was to be further shorthanded for the remaining 23 minutes of the game.
Yet the home team would not buckle and went into the lead again after a beautiful finish from Curtis Hamilton, so often denied on the breakaway in this stanza by Peters, as he threaded the needle past the former NHL goalie and put the Giants ahead with 20 seconds left in the period.
Still the cheap plays came from Liberec, but this time it was to their own detriment. Petr Jelínek given 2 + 5 + Game for charging as he leaped into a celebrating Ben Lake. The Giants forward, who was screening the Liberec goal, had his hands in the air cheering Hamilton’s goal when he was cut down by the charging Jelínek and landed on Peters behind him. The Liberec forward is lucky his ridiculously petulant actions didn’t cause injury to his own netminder. Jelínek was sent straight down the tunnel for an early shower as the Giants closed the period 4-3 ahead and on the powerplay.
The final period was a little quieter, but the Giants kept their foot on the gas and extended their lead to 5-3 with another goal by Ward.
Liberec then laid siege to the Giants goal, their urgency palpable as the reality of their embarrassment set in. Shane Owen standing tall time and time again as his depleted D-corps worked hard to limit the shots with Curtis Leonard’s diving poke check brilliantly stifling a breakaway late in the game. Shane Owen was called into action again to stop a lacklustre Liberec Penalty Shot following a slash by Mark Garside. Time and time again the visitors came at the Giants but the Giants held firm.
It was not until the last dying seconds of the match, with Peters pulled from the game, that Liberec were able to reduce the deficit to 1 goal. Jakub Valský breaking the Giants resolve and slotting it by Shane Owen to make it 5-4.
Too little too late and off the resulting restart the Giants pressed hard and kept the puck deep in the Czech’s zone to close out a memorable win for the Giants.
Underdogs from the start, but sometimes those dogs bite back.
In a desperate attempt to deflect the narrative, Patrik Agusta, head coach of Liberec, was to describe the Giants play in the 2nd period as akin to “the movie slapshot”. A laughable endeavour to draw attention away from his own poor tactical decisions, his team’s severe ill-discipline and the overall embarrassment caused by the defeat.
The Belfast Giants were by no means angels in this game, the idea however, is they gave as good as they got if not better. Keefe’s new team showed heart, determination and ability. The statistic that matters was emblazoned on the scoreboard in each corner of the arena, the Giants have arrived in the Champions Hockey League and are already shaking things up.
PODCAST: Three, Four, Five, Six – The Lads preview the CHL openers with Adam Keefe, Chat to EIHL media manager Luke Fisher, and we hear from the new Captain, Matt Pelech on his approach to pre-season.
A View From The Bridge Podcast, Official Podcast of the Belfast Giants, part of Kingdom Of The Giants.New Editions are online EVERY WEDNESDAY through the season, at 8am from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, The Cool FM App and all other good podcast providers.
Words: Patrick Smyth Audio: A View From The Bridge Video: CHL
Pictures: William Cherry / PressEye