The Giants crusade for a Challenge Cup 3-peat kicked back into gear Wednesday night, as the Cardiff Devils rolled into Belfast for the first tilt in a two game aggregate series.
Ahead of face off, former Giant Matt Towe was recognised by the OSC as part of his surprise Fan Appreciation Night, and received a thundering ovation as a video montage of his exploits in Teal played on the arena’s big screens… including THAT Challenge Cup winning goal in Cardiff, versus the Devils.
How special it must be for a former player to come back into the arena where they poured their heart and soul into a jersey, and be welcomed with open arms in appreciation for that sacrifice.
Athlete’s careers are short, and god knows they aren’t playing for money in the EIHL. Those bonds with a city and its fans are the things that last. Those memories. Knowing that your name is spoken with reverence for many years after you’ve hung up the skates.
Blair Riley was also in town.
FIRST PERIOD: Old Time Hockey
The home side was once again without Kevin Raine, who had exited the game on night one of this past weekend’s Sheffield double. Ben Lake made a welcome return after pulling out of warm ups on Saturday.
It took seven minutes for this one to explode into life, but when it did… oh boy.
Firstly, the Giants unleashed a flurry of shots on Ben Bowns in the Devils goal, lighting up the crowd.
Shortly after, Matt Pelech and Mark Louis dropped the gloves centre ice in an agonisingly long, old fashioned tilt. Louis landed a stiff jab to Pelech’s jaw early doors, but the Giants Captain stayed on his feet to land a few lefts and rights of his own- and where Louis may have edged the fight, Pelech certainly succeeded in cranking the midweek atmosphere up another notch.
Jordan Smotherman rang the crossbar inside the last ten minutes of the period- a shot so marginal that the referees on ice called a goal and sent it to video review, to no avail.
Belfast executed very well on the forecheck, and while they got their looks on goal, it was Cardiff who struck first courtesy of Joey Martin, unassisted from close range- a shot that, in all honesty, Shane Owen would want back. (0-1)
Belfast continued to press for the remainder of the period, outshooting Cardiff 10-8 by the time the first buzzer sounded.
SECOND PERIOD: Hey Giants Are You My Favourite Dive Bar? Because Ur Shots Are Very Low Percentage
Sam Jardine threw an elbow into Patryk Wronka’s face three minutes into the second period, handing Belfast their first power play opportunity of the night; but Adam Keefe’s men didn’t manage anything resembling an offensive cycle.
Bobby Farnham provided a spark of hope in the 7th minute of the period, creating back to back chances off a forced turnover in the zone. But with that aside, once again the Giants were falling into the trap of low percentage shooting.
Belfast fared marginally better on their second power play outing of the night (Morrison, Hooking, 28.27), but only just. Patryk Wronka dazzled with his lightning feet, but couldn’t complete a give-and-go in the slot.
To their credit, Belfast were marginally better on the attack in the last five minutes of the period, and were rewarded with a power play to close it out.
Despite their improvements at even strength, however, it was once again wobbly. A cheap interference penalty in the Giants zone taken by Matt Pelech after the buzzer meant the home side would enter the final period chasing a goal on the kill.
THIRD PERIOD: Remember… Like… Goals?
With Pelech’s earlier penalty killed, Belfast came as close to goal as they have been all game when the puck came off the backboards and dropped into traffic in the crease. They followed it up with a handful of grade A chances, but failed to convert.
Bryce Reddick headed to the box for slashing at 45:45, and for the first time all game the SSE Arena crowd could sense that the Giants were knocking on the door. Frustratingly, however, the sides returned to even strength once again.
Josh Batch took an interference penalty at 50:25… and again the Giants were held.
A stone wall delay of of game penalty on Cardiff was denied by the refereeing crew as the game edged into its final five minutes- and a slashing penalty on Curtis Hamilton seconds later well and truly turned the home crowd. A chorus of boos and jeers rang down as the Giants set out on the penalty kill.
A pile up in front of Ben Bowns saw Matt Pelech and Sean McMonagle taking a pair of twos, much to the chagrin of an already frustrated and angry Belfast crowd, and the sides headed into the last minute at 4 on 4.
Shane Owen pulled off a beautiful stop at close range to keep it at one, and Belfast broke down the ice, earning some zone time in front of Bowns before a puck freeze with 19 seconds left.
The final shift of the game was frantic, locked up high in the Cardiff zone, but time bled away along with any hope of a goal.
A 0-1 defeat in the context of a two legged series with aggregate scoring isn’t the worst news in the world… but Belfast’s inability to score a single goal in back to back home games is sure to ring alarm bells among the Teal faithful.
AVFTB POST GAME INTERVIEWS:
Adam Keefe: “We need to take out the frustration we’re feeling now… on the Dundee Stars.”
Bobby Farnham: “I think at times this season we have squeezed the stick a little too tight… I don’t think tonight was one of those scenarios.”
Words: Joel Neill
Audio: Joel Neill / AVFTB
Images: William Cherry / PressEye