It’s been a heavy week.
As you will no doubt know by now, Northern Ireland suddenly and unexpectedly lost beloved BBC Radio Ulster DJ, and former Giants game night announcer, Stephen Clements this week.
Moreover, in the years following his involvement with the club, Clements became a close friend of your Head Coach Adam Keefe.
Keefe’s powerful interview to the UTV cameras this week was a perfect summary of the national mood, and a raw and sobering reminder of the extent of the tragedy.
As the arena filled on Friday night for the Belfast Giants all important clash with the Sheffield Steelers, it was hard to escape the feeling that tonight was about more than just hockey.
In this building, in this club, the bad times are a shared experience just like the good. Tragedy, anxiety, depression, suffering and personal circumstance are set to one side here every single week, and for just a few hours, nothing else matters.
The Giants 20th Anniversary intro video was an emotional rollercoaster before, but today…
Ahead of faceoff, the arena rose to mark a minute’s applause in celebration of Clements’ life, with current arena announcer David McCammond paying beautiful tribute to his predecessor.
FIRST PERIOD: 90 Seconds Of Mayhem
Belfast were without Liam Morgan in an otherwise healthy lineup, and Shane Owen was given the nod in goal.
In all honesty, it wasn’t the ferocious start expected from either side. That is, until Kevin Raine sat for essentially being able to hit well. Referees Hogarth and Smith called it boarding. Why not just make it a non contact sport boys?
Belfast were sensational on the kill, finding a number of breakaway chances. Most notably Ben Lake, who dangled his way down the slot and was only just denied by Steelers goaltender Tomas Duba.
With the Giants so potent a man short, surely the power play would be electric tonight, right?
A 5 on 3 went begging with barely a shot recorded, much to the frustration of the home crowd.
Lake came within a whisker on yet another breakaway with around 8 left in the period, as the Giants continued to pour forward in search of goal.
The Giants had been great on the forecheck, sharp on the counter… but so frustratingly couldn’t pull the trigger on a grade A chance.
It looked very much like Nicolai Lemtyugov had undone 18:32 of Giants work with a beautiful finish past Shane Owen, dragging the puck across the face of goal and finishing on the right hand post. (0-1)
But in an utterly electric minute and a half, the Belfast Giants had- somehow- taken the lead.
Literally seconds after the puck had dropped, Bobby Farnham five holed Duba from mid zone, sending the arena wild. (1-1)
Farnham, a wrecking ball at the best of times, was on fine form tonight- flaring tempers and drawing a Davey Phillips roughing penalty at 19:07 which Rickard Palmberg needed no invitation to capitalise on.
The Super Swede hammered a bullet from the top of the right circle, which rattled the net and edged Belfast into the lead at 19:49. (2-1)
SECOND PERIOD: Owey Owey Oh
Belfast survived solid Sheffield zone time in the second five minutes of the middle period, still looking dangerous on the break when they got their looks.
Into his second weekend following a lengthy layup, Kevin Raine looked very much back to his old self, pulling long shifts, throwing limbs in front of shots and hitting anything that came his way.
Brendan Connolly and Rickard Palmberg exchanged fairly stiff slashes after Connolly’s stick was knocked from his hand- an exchange which went under the referee’s radar as tension began to build at the half way point of the game.
With 2:26 left in the period, and with a clear six men on the ice, Sheffield struck level. Josef Hrabal stepped up from the blue line into the path of the puck- pulling the trigger on a rocket that beat Owen clean. Aside from, y’know, the six men. (2-2)
Jordan Smotherman was denied on the breakaway on the edge of the final minute, rattling Tomas Duba’s cage in the process.
Following a quick check from the Doc, play resumed.
As the Giants absorbed pressure in the final seconds of the period, Shane Owen- who had been outstanding tonight so far in the face of heavy traffic- made three successive highlight reel saves to a huge ovation.
There was, nerve wrackingly, very little separating the sides as the final 20 loomed.
THIRD PERIOD: Roof Raised
The media coffee was not helping my anxiety as a wide open third period got underway. The sides continued to trade blows, forcing both goaltenders into a number of solid saves.
Rickard Palmberg backhanded the puck from behind goal into the path of Curtis Hamilton with 15:06 left- Hamilton’s shot landing centre mass on Duba much to his frustration.
Despite Belfast’s looks, however, it felt like the visitors had the edge- with the shot clock reading 26-32 in their favour with 12:38 remaining.
Shane Owen was, without exaggeration, diving all over the place in the east end goal to keep Belfast in the mix as they faced wave after wave of pressure.
Inside the last nine minute of the game, however, the roof came off.
Mark Garside fired a shot from the point. Duba’s rebound was picked up by David Goodwin who had two hacks, tucking the puck home left post at 51:08. (3-2)
Sheffield threw the kitchen sink forward in the final two minutes, and as Tomas Duba headed for the bench they iced the extra skater.
Shane Owen continued a tremendous performance under huge pressure, as the SSE arena roared in search of the empty netter.
With 53 seconds on the clock, the Steelers called a time out.
Owen continued to throw pad after glover as Sheffield cycled the zone.
After what felt like twenty minutes of zone pressure, Elgin Pearce finally found the puck at his blade- saucing a grenade the length of the ice and into the empty net to seal the deal. (4-2)
That one was for you, Stephen.
AVFTB POST GAME INTERVIEWS
Adam Keefe: “They turned up in the third period, and took the game back.”
Shane Owen: “Those are the games you want to play!”
Words: Joel Neill
Audio: Joel Neill / AVFTB
Images: William Cherry / PressEye