The Belfast Giants sit three points behind the game-in-hand Cardiff Devils heading into this weekend’s double header in Belfast- and with the potential differential being 5, the allocation of the points on offer this weekend could very likely make or break one side’s season.
Belfast iced without ace Patrick Dwyer in addition to Guillaume Gelinas. Meanwhile Cardiff were missing Luke Piggott and the suspended Sean Bentivoglio.
In the stands, a large Devils travelling contingent complimented a packed out home crowd- enough bodies to warrant the lesser spotted East Stand’s debut on the season.
The arena was electric, and the time for talking was finally over- and believe me, there was a lot of talking.
It took just 3 minutes and 22 seconds for the roof to lift off the arena, as Darcy Murphy entered the zone, holding down the slot before laying the puck to a poised Dustin Johner who buried it past Ben Bowns’ left post. (Assist: Murphy, Baun) (1-0)
The SSE Arena remained a cauldron of thunderous noise throughout a tense first period of end to end hockey.
Belfast’s opening power play came at 10.56, when Mark Louis sat for tripping. Belfast did an excellent job at pinning the puck in the Devils zone, but despite a couple of heart stopping moments were unable to get anything past an embattled Bowns.
As the sides returned to even strength, Cardiff responded- Joey Haddad pouncing to rocket home an idle puck which had been parried by Tyler Beskorowany off a Layne Ulmer shot at 13.24. (Asssit: Ulmer, Myers) (1-1)
David Rutherford headed to the penalty box for a high stick with 1.11 left in the period and the Devil’s power play unit took over- applying decent pressure but failing to beat Beskorowany as the clock wound down.
(SOG: Belfast 12-10 Cardiff)
Belfast saw out the remainder of their penalty kill as the second got underway, and the sides returned to even strength.
The Giants endured a frustrating faceoff violation call on David Rutherford at 26.15, clearing the zone with determination.
The Giants then had an opportunity with the extra skater, as Josh Batch made high contact with David Rutherford deep in the Cardiff zone and sat for interference.
A coming together in the Belfast zone 56 seconds into the power play filled the penalty boxes, as Hedden sat 2+2 for Cardiff and Josh Roach and Blair Riley each served 2- all for roughing.
This kept the Giants on a 5 on 4 power play which expired and evened the sides.
Cardiff were noticeably more prominent in the opening ten minutes of the period, Belfast absorbing their fair share of pressure in a frantic phase of the game as a result.
The penalty minutes didn’t stop there- a Chris Higgins hooking call at 34.09 was brought back to 4 on 4 seconds later, as Gleeson Fournier sat for interference.
A chaotic middle period closed all square at 1-1.
SOG: Belfast 23-24 Cardiff
A cagey early third was punctuated by a Jonathan Ferland elbowing penalty at 44.47. A minute and a half into a good kill, Blair Riley was in turn elbowed by Linglet to send them onto the power play. Cardiff frustrations were compounded when Myers ALSO set for elbowing, giving Belfast 1.05 of 5 on 3, followed by 55s of 5 on 4.
The noise in the building was thunderous as Adam Keefe called a time out.
The Teal Army was rewarded when Jordan Smotherman ripped the puck past Bowns at 48.19 to rapturous scenes. Assist: Higgins (2-1)
A questionable Garside holding penalty at 50.01 handed the Devils a chance to get back into it, and they did just that. Gleeson Fournier unleashed a lightning wrist shot from the point which soared past Beskorowany to draw it level. Assist: Martin, Hedden (2-2)
Moments later, Darcy Murphy just about registered an earthquake on Queens Island, stripping the puck in the Devils zone and beating Bowns on his second bite of the cherry. (3-2)
The final 5 minutes were some of the most nerve shredding experienced in the SSE Arena in a long, long time. Both sets of fans fully invested in every pass, hit and shot.
And who else to ice an unrelenting game but Captain Blair Riley, stripping Bowns of the puck in his own zone and ripping home as the game ticked away.
Cardiff pulled their netminder with spare change on the clock, but it wasn’t enough and the Belfast Giants closed out their most important points of the season.