It’s the Giant’s Causeway vs. Guildford Castle. Potato Bread vs. Maids of Honour. The Lagan vs. The River Wey. The Lyric vs. the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Yer Uncle Hugo vs. Tony Blackburn.
It’s fair to say, there is not a storied rivalry in this one.
The Belfast Giants travel to Cardiff this weekend to take on the Guildford Flames in Sunday’s first showpiece event of the domestic season, the 2019 Challenge Cup Final. The Giants qualified for the quarter-final stage as the top-seeded team from the group stage, which earned them the first choice of opponent in the draw for the last eight of the competition. They picked the Dundee Stars and dispatched them comfortably 12-2 over two legs, before going on to beat the Glasgow Clan 7-5 on aggregate to progress to the final.
Guildford are on the hunt for another arena team scalp, as their road to the final ran through both participants in “the biggest rivalry in Europe”. The fourth seeds were left with the Sheffield Steelers after the quarter-final draw, winning 9-8 before dumping the Nottingham Panthers out of the Challenge Cup with a 3-1 win in Nottingham, completing an 8-3 semi-final victory to book their place in Cardiff.
Hopefully those making the trip from Belfast shouldn’t need to emulate last year’s storybook narrative of fans flying to airports up and down Great Britain, travelling to a game that was in danger of not happening due to heavy snowfall. Both the team and the fans just about made it in time to win the 2018 final 6-3, slaying the hometown Cardiff Devils in their own rink to lift the trophy. The Giants return to Cardiff as defending Challenge Cup champions, attempting to retain the title against the Flames who are appearing in their first Elite League final since re-joining the top table of UK hockey in 2017.
Head to Head
The Giants have come out on top in all but one of the head to head match-ups with the Flames this season, that being the 3-2 loss in Guildford on 21st October. Every game has been close barring the 7-2 blowout in February, with three games going into the record books as 3-2 decisions.
In the six league games between the two teams, the scoring has been spread fairly evenly for the Giants. Darcy Murphy and Blair Riley lead Belfast’s goalscoring with three goals each, followed by Chris Higgins, David Rutherford and Jonathan Ferland all scoring twice. Rutherford and Kyle Baun have four assists each, with Riley, Murphy, Higgins and Jordan Smotherman all contributing three each. One player who pulls out his best saucer passes against Guildford is Tyler Beskorowany, who has two of his four league assists against the Flames.
Calle Ackered and Kruise Reddick have scored three goals each for the Flames, with John Dunbar netting two. Reddick also leads the way in assists for Guildford with four helpers, Ian Watters with three, and Dunbar two.
The Guildford Flames
After the teams last met the Flames went on an impressive six game winning run in league play, beating both the Cardiff Devils and the Glasgow Clan in the process, whilst also ending Nottingham’s Challenge Cup dreams. They dropped one game against the Clan last Saturday, but won the return game in overtime for an impressive 8-1 record in all competitions since the Belfast double-header.
Style of Play
I covered the Flames for the double-header in Belfast earlier this season, and they have not changed their play considerably. The first line is still the same five man unit of Reddick, Dunbar and Watters up front, with Ackered and Jesse Craige manning the blueline. The two wings will still look to spread to the boards on their breakout to give Ackered and Craige passing options when they are on the puck, with Reddick swinging in the slot to skate the puck with speed up ice if he is given room. When they are on form they can light up a team in short order, and there is no question that they will be dangerous come the final.
The second line tries to breakout with two skating forwards grouped on one side of the ice for the defenceman to pass to, with a stretch pass available to the third forward on the weak side. This forward will look to move up ice as soon as the Flames regain possession of the puck to offer a breakaway option (1):
The Giants have done a good job of limiting the weak side pass here, but the movement of the other two forwards gives the defenceman the passing options to release the forwards at speed and create a scoring chance.
The Flames travelled to Belfast without Kevin King in their line-up in February, and his return to the active roster since the second leg of the semi-final against Nottingham has allowed Paul Dixon to spread his team’s offense through his second and third lines. King has recorded five points including that game against the Panthers, and he has linked well with Ben Davies and TJ Foster on the Flames’ revamped second line. Brett Ferguson has moved to centre Jamie Crooks and Great Britain U-20 starlet Joshua Waller on the third line, giving the Flames a balanced top nine who have all been contributing to the scoreboard in recent weeks
Kruise Reddick is the best player in Guildford’s forward lines. Reddick will drive possession for the top line and the number one powerplay unit, he will hit and forecheck aggressively to win the puck, and he is not afraid to work around the crease to get his goals. The top line’s plus/minus figures still give cause for concern when you look at how many even strength points they each have, suggesting a possible defensive weakness, but the line is built for offense, and Reddick can put the team on his back and carry them to silverware if the Giants are unable to contain him.
Reddick is a key part of the Flames’ powerplay, and he can pop up in any position due to Guildford’s movement. The Flames will rotate from the 1-3-1 into an umbrella set-up if they are not creating quality chances:
A number of teams have suffered from this flexibility, including the Giants. This play in particular also shows Reddick’s willingness to play in and around the blue paint.
On the blueline, Calle Ackered is arguably the most dangerous defenseman in the league at both five-on-five play and on the powerplay. His point shot has caused the Giants problems already this season, as it did when he picked up a second assist from a goalmouth scramble for the Flames’ second goal during the Giants’ 3-2 home win in October. The Giants have seen his right face-off circle work several times; in October’s 3-2 loss in Guildford, Ackered’s first goal came when he skated into the slot from the right circle, and his second came after collecting a rebound from his own shot from that circle. Then again, in the second game of the February double-header in Belfast:
This might be five-on-three, but it does demonstrate the movement that the Flames can generate on their powerplay, with all five players capable of rotating and worrying the defence. You have to respect Ackered’s shot, but much like Alex Ovechkin with the Washington Capitals, the Giants cannot give Ackered too much attention as they would leave themselves open to Guildford working a four on three opportunity elsewhere on the ice.
The Guildford Flames have two good goaltenders, Chris Carrozzi and Travis Fullerton, and there is little to pick between them when it comes to who will take the net for Sunday’s clash. Carrozzi holds the better goals against average per game at 2.73 compared to 3.14 in nine more games played, but their save percentages are almost identical at .907 and .908 respectively. In the nine starts since the teams last played, Carrozzi has taken five starts to Fullerton’s four, and they split the home and home series with Renfrew last weekend. Carrozzi played in both Challenge Cup semi-final games against Nottingham, which may suggest that he is the favourite to get the start in Cardiff.
Watters – Reddick – Dunbar
King – Foster – Davies
Crooks – Ferguson – Waller
Janssen – Ritt* – Krogh
Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt
*Evan Ritt has not played since the 2nd February against the Sheffield Steelers.
The Belfast Giants
On the night after the double-header with Guildford the Giants lost to Nottingham in overtime, but went on to win five games out of six before suffering defeats at the hands of Glasgow and Sheffield. They have been embroiled in a battle with the Cardiff Devils for the League Championship, winning two games during their recent good run of form against Andrew Lord’s side on their way to amassing a 6-2-1 record in all competitions since February’s tilt with the Flames.
Style of Play
The Giants are a fast, skilful puck possession team who will press their opponents all over the ice. They use short passes with close puck support to play their way through opposition defences, but also have skilled puckhandlers on forward and defence who can dangle around defenders. The fact that Lewis Hook is playing fourth line minutes shows the depth of talent that the club currently enjoys.
The Giants will look to start their breakout with a pass to the half-wall, where a winger can either skate up ice or look for another quick pass to the supporting centre or weak side winger. The Giants have options on the breakout if they can’t make the first pass (Cardiff were excellent at disrupting the Giants’ breakout in February), as they have a defenseman on each line who can carry the puck up ice in Josh Roach, Kevin Raine and Jim Vandermeer. The left wing forward often criss-crosses into the centre, and the three forwards enter the zone with speed backing their opponent’s defencemen into their zone:
If the rush is not successful, the Giants can create an effective cycle on the boards to open up secondary chances. The defencemen are free to pinch into the cycle as required, with the forwards ready to move back and cover the point to guard against any odd man rushes the pinch might allow:
If the cycle is broken up, the Giants will move the puck quickly back to the point for a D-D pass to reset the attack to the other side of the offensive zone.
Belfast’s powerplay will often try to set up on the left side of the ice, with a defenceman on the blueline, a playmaker on the half-wall, a forward behind the net, a net front presence and a weak side shooter:
Patrick Dwyer’s passing can unlock defences from the half-wall by itself, but there is an abundance of skill throughout the Giants line-up that have filled in during Dwyer’s absence, with David Rutherford comfortably playing that position. Kyle Baun and Chris Higgins will look to play on the goal line and either skate to find space, or try to make passes to the weak side of the ice for shots.
The Giants usually employ an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck, though they will also use a high 1-2-2 zone press from the neutral zone at times with wingers looking to cut off breakout passes from behind the net. This might be one way to force Guildford’s top line into having to make adjustments during the game.
When defending the rush the Giants have been using a 2-3 neutral zone lock, with one defenseman ready to drop back to almost give a 1-3-1 look once the puck is crossing the blueline. In the defensive zone the pressure continues, with the weak side winger staying close to centre ice in the high slot or slightly to the strong side when the puck is on the boards to limit the amount of space available for the opposition.
The emphasis is on out-working the opponent on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck. The Giants can maintain pressure on teams due to running four lines who are all fast skaters so that the opposition rarely get a chance to breathe when the Giants are at their dynamic best.
Darcy Murphy. Darcy Dangles. The Belfast Giants number 15 has been on fire of late, topping the Elite League goals chart with 33 goals and sitting two points shy of the overall points lead in the league as well. He has also scored the most game winning goals in the league with 10 goals, three ahead of Mr Ackered. He is lightning quick, has the puckhandling skills to score coast to coast goals that can bring a crowd to their feet, and has a fantastic release on his shot. You will often see him on the inside of the face-off circle on offensive zone draws ready for a quick shot. If Murphy is at his best on Sunday, the Flames may find him unplayable.
Kevin Raine has been a rock defensively night in and night out since he returned to the Giants in October. He can carry the puck when needed, and his physical play and foot speed make it hard to get past him, as shown here, where he angles Kruise Reddick to the outside of the ice into the boards and separates the man from the puck:
I think that Raine is the defenceman on the Giant’s backend best suited to cope with Reddick’s play, and Reddick vs. Raine could be one subplot to watch out for on the night if Coach Adam Keefe decides to match his defensive pairings with certain lines.
Between the pipes, Tyler Beskorowany is possibly one of the best goaltenders of the Elite League era, certainly one of the Giants’ best. His numbers this season back this up, currently leading the league in both save percentage and goals against average. He has kept the Giants in games this year when they have had defensive lapses, and with Belfast being an offensive minded team he will likely have to make a big save or two in Cardiff if the Giants are to win the Challenge Cup for the second time in a row.
Murphy – Rutherford – Riley
Higgins – Johner – Baun
Smotherman – Ferland – Shields
Swindlehurst – Boxill – Hook
Leonard – Roach
McFaull – Raine
Garside – Vandermeer
*Patrick Dwyer has been out of the line-up since the games against the Glasgow Clan, but he could be the difference maker if he is fit for the final. He can hold onto the puck almost at will, but his NHL third and fourth line work gives the Giants a further option on the penalty kill, where he is excellent at angling the puck carrier into less dangerous positions near the boards. The Giants have quality throughout the line-up, but the ripple effect of having Dwyer on the ice makes every line better, and would be a big boost for the Giants towards lifting the trophy in Cardiff. Jonathan Ferland could be the odd man out in this situation due to import numbers, but his physical style may be important in the playoff atmosphere of a final. Giants fans will be hoping that Coach Keefe has a difficult decision ahead of him come Sunday.
The Giants have had a banner year in terms of their special teams play, continuing to lead the pack in league play on both the powerplay and the penalty kill with a 25.68% PP and an 86.91% PK. Guildford have been having a reasonable season themselves on special teams, sitting fourth in powerplay success at 20.63% and second on the PK at 84.91%.
The Giants on paper have the depth advantage with four strong lines against three, allowing them to play their high tempo game, but that also means Guildford’s best players will get more ice-time to go to work. Guildford have been on a very good run of form, and with both teams set up for offense and quick transitions the game could well turn into a run-and-gun barnburner. The Giants have been chasing trophies on four fronts this season, and are genuine contenders for every trophy available, but I have been saying all season that Guildford remind me of the Giants team of 2017/18, and we know what success they achieved in the very building that the two teams skate into on Sunday.
The final should be a great showcase for where Elite League hockey sits at the moment, and the trophy could go to either team. Whether you are travelling to Cardiff or watching from further afield, enjoy what should be a great show.
(1): All highlight clips sourced from the Belfast Giants and provided by Giants Live TV