The Gathering Of The Clans

Finn McCool is no stranger to this situation. The exact year is lost to the myths of time, but long ago a Scottish giant called Benandonner crossed the Irish sea to face the underdog Finn, possibly due to the unfeasible land bridge that he had built. On arriving in Ireland the Scottish giant was outwitted by Finn, who made him think that he was a much bigger threat to the Scot than he had believed. Finn sent Benandonner fleeing back to Caledonia, who irrationally destroyed a potential future World Heritage site on his retreat.

Coach Adam Keefe’s next task is to outwit his GB counterpart Pete Russell over a three game series against the Glasgow Clan, as the teams come together over a four-day stretch in Challenge Cup and Elite League action, the Giants looking to keep two of their three hopes of silverware this season on course. First up is the second leg of the Challenge Cup semi-final on Thursday night at the SSE arena. The Clan opened up a two goal lead in the two-legged affair at home in Renfrew inside the first two periods, thanks to goals from Matt Beca and Gerard Hanson, before a Kyle Baun snipe finished the scoring in the first leg.

Glasgow are one of the form teams in the league at present, currently holding the longest winning streak in the league and going unbeaten in their last four games. They have won ten and lost two games in all competitions since this time last month, including a 5-1 win against the Dundee Stars last Tuesday, to climb to third overall in the league standings.

Style of Play

Glasgow typically play an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck, sending two forwards into the offensive zone to win possession of the puck, with their third forward staying near the blueline until the Clan win the puck. They do seem over aggressive at times, with either the third forward pushing up before the puck has been won back or one of the first two forwards not cycling back to cover the third forward’s check, so they can let their opponents break on odd man rushes. The neutral zone is typically set as a 2-1-2 check as well, but I could see the Clan change this during the Cup game, since they could go with a 1-2-2 in each zone for a defensive forecheck and look for breakout passes to hit the Giants on the counterattack. It will be interesting to see if this happens during the game since the Clan’s success has come through their more aggressive style.

The Clan defensemen already fit this change, as they like to make breakout passes to the forwards when they are in their defensive zone. Both of Glasgow’s wingers look to push up high in the zone against their opposite defenceman, available to receive a pass when the puck is turned over and break up ice. Glasgow have several defensemen, Matt Stanisz especially, who can get the puck to the forwards quickly to let them attack the offensive zone with speed. Their whole first line work hard on the forecheck, skate well together and create offense, with Matt Beca being the fifth highest points scorer in league play this year. They are playing well and will be a potent threat throughout the next three games for the Giants.

The second line features one Mr Brendan Connolly, well-known in Belfast as one of their top offensive players last season. He rotates from centre to wing with Craig Peacock in Renfrew, and can be a key cog in the team’s transition from defence to offense, often carrying the puck out of danger with his stickhandling ability. He has the fourth most goals in league play with 27 goals on the season, sandwiched by Belfast’s Darcy Murphy and Blair Riley with 28 and 26 goals respectively.

However. He is also well-known for his penchant for discussing the finer points of the game with the referees. At length. Usually around the penalty box door before once again taking his seat inside. Connolly sits fifteenth in penalty minutes taken in the Elite League overall this year with 74 PIMs, seventh amongst forwards, and the Giants would be in as good a position as any to exploit this, as they will surely try to get their former teammate riled up over the three games.

In tandem with the penalties, as much as I don’t like using plus/minus, when you combine Connolly’s +2 with his 56 points you see a big difference in those numbers, especially compared to most of his teammates. Take out his 14 powerplay points, and Connolly has been on the ice for 40 five-on-five goals conceded compared to 42 goals for, an issue that he has in common with Guildford’s top line. His usual linemates Craig Peacock and Guillaume Doucet fare better in this regard, but are still lower in plus/minus than you would expect for the points they have. Connolly is always a threat offensively, of that there is no question, as is Doucet, but his line could be the one to target defensively if the Giants are looking for weak points to take advantage of.

Depth Chart

Stupka – Pitt – Beca
Peacock – Connolly – Doucet
Bjerrum – Haywood – Hanson
Tanski* – Howlett – Musil

Erhardt – Gutwald
Stanisz – Fitzgerald
Wilson – Sullivan

Rumpel
Russell

*Tanski rotates to defence as required

The Giants will have the rarity of being more rested than their opponents come Thursday after the Clan’s efforts on Tuesday. The team must keep the pressure on Cardiff by completely ignoring the Devils and focussing on three wins against Glasgow. The Giants have the firepower to beat the Clan despite Glasgow’s form and are playing well themselves, scoring points in eight out of the last ten league games. The Giants also have the special teams advantage, topping the league with their powerplay success rate of 27.27%, going up against Glasgow’s 80.35% penalty kill. At the other end of the ice, Glasgow’s powerplay runs at 18.98%, compared to Belfast’s league best 86.31% PK. The Clan are dangerous at the moment and none of these games are a certainty, but the Giants have every chance of progressing to the Challenge Cup final and taking four league points in their drive for the Elite League championship.

Just as Finn McCool was able to chase Benandonner back to Scotland, so the Giants will hope that Finn’s modern-day representatives can do the same to Glasgow, following them back to steal the extra two points in Renfrew on Sunday. The rollercoaster awaits for the latest installment of nervous excitement that this season is bringing.

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The Rollercoaster Rolls On

I tried out a couple of titles for this one, what with going mainstream and all. “Here’s What I’ve Seen, Coach Will Change Everything” seems apt for a pretty fluid sport tactically, but luckily it’s difficult to completely overhaul a hockey team in a week. “Cat’s Whiskers‘ Belfast Correspondent Infiltrates KotG” has a certain ring to it, but… well… I’m a man of several hats, but I missed the Giants Vs Panthers game to attend a wrestling show, so I haven’t been corresponding with Nottingham very well of late. I think we’ll stick with the runaway emotional rollercoaster vibe that the season is taking on for now and see how we go.

The Belfast Giants head into a three game weekend on Friday, starting with two home games against the Guildford Flames followed by a tricky away game to the Nottingham Panthers on Sunday. The double-header series gives both Adam Keefe and Paul Dixon an opportunity to match wits against one opponent in a way they are not able to often, and the adjustments made during these mini series can sometimes make the difference between earning four points or splitting the series with two points each.

For example, in the piece I wrote on Fife two weeks ago, I said that their defencemen typically try to pass to a forward at the half-wall on their breakout, who can then skate himself or pass to a supporting centre. In the first game against the Flyers, the Giants pinched up the boards quite aggressively to counter the first pass being made to the blueline, and had some success in disrupting the Flyers breakout with this pressure. In the second game the Flyers made that pass deeper in their zone, meaning the Giants could not pressure the first pass as effectively and Fife could break out of the zone much more cleanly.

Style of Play

The Guildford Flames top line can adjust quickly to what their opponents defence are doing due to the options that playing as a five man unit gives them. Calle Ackered and Jesse Craige join Ian Watters, Kruise Reddick and John Dunbar as often as Coach Dixon can send them out together, favouring an offensive puck-possession style of game with all five players able to drive that possession.

The top lines’ breakout typically sees Dunbar and Watters move to the boards as soon as a defenceman gains control of the puck, giving passing options to both sides of the ice. Reddick will have already started skating to provide a third option carrying speed into the neutral zone. If Reddick is not a direct passing option, the wingers can take a pass to move the puck to him further into the zone, or can head up ice themselves. Both defencemen can carry the puck themselves if these options are blocked off as well, and all five are skilled enough to pick passes through the opposition’s forecheck.

Guildford’s top powerplay unit consists of the same five players, with Ackered playing the point, Craige and Reddick making passes from the left and right half-walls respectively, Dunbar playing the centre position and Watters working in front of the net. However, they can also use an umbrella powerplay with a player at the point, two players at the top of the circles, and another two digging around the crease. Either set-up is dynamic, with players regularly switching positions, Ackered in particular moving to the right circle to release his dangerous one-timer. With this creativity it is no wonder that Guildford’s powerplay trails only Belfast and Cardiff in the league, ticking along at a 22.27% success rate.

Guildford’s main threat is their top line, but they do have good players throughout the lineup. The second line can score as well, with Brett Ferguson carrying the puck and T.J. Foster looking to shoot whenever he can. Evan Janssen is the shooter on the third line, while Ben Davies can carry the puck out of defence with his stickhandling. Erik Lindhagen is a danger from the second defence pairing, he is another fast skating defenceman who can transition the play quickly from defence to offense, Lindhagen also quarterbacks the second powerplay unit.

Defensively, Guildford tend to send one forward into the offensive zone at a time on the forecheck, rotating two checkers to press the puck carrier, then cycling back into a 2-3 lock in the neutral zone if they cannot win possession. Guildford tend to try and regroup with the puck on the blueline, when this happens the forwards will already be wheeling round to be ready for a quick counter-attack pass.

In their own zone, they keep their players fairly close together with the weak-side winger positioned in the mid slot range, with the nearest player to the puck leaving the box to pressure the puck carrier. Any faceoff loss in the defensive zone tends to see the strong side winger sprint to the puck to start the press. The penalty kill is similarly aggressive, and it is jointly leading the league at the moment alongside Belfast at 85.71%.

With the Giants having the home ice last change, their extra depth over Guildford could allow Coach Keefe to match a defensive skating line with the Flames top line, and then match one of the top two lines against Guildford’s third line. The Flames defensive strength is in their top two pairings, with the Jordan Abt and Jez Lundin combination struggling at times, Lundin’s +/- especially standing out at a team high -13. Alternatively the Giants may also have success playing their top lines against Guildford’s; all of their +/- numbers are in the minus, suggesting that as good as the Flames top line is offensively, they may be vulnerable to conceding goals.

Depth Chart
Watters – Riddick – Dunbar
Crooks – Ferguson – Foster
Janssen – Ritt – Davies
Krogh – Waller – King*

Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt

Carrozzi
Fullerton

*Kevin King unavailable since 20/01/19

The Giants move on to the Nottingham Panthers on Sunday night, who may see a defensive road game from the Giants after having to skate with the Flames over two nights. The Panthers could be missing three key defencemen in Jayden Rissling, Guy Lepine and Dylan Olsen though, which could be an opportune time to play a more physical game and wear down the remaining defenders and any injury cover on defence. Keeping the puck in the Panthers zone would tire out a patchwork defence and create chances, however the two Guildford games may determine how hard the Giants will be able to forecheck over sixty minutes.

Patrick Dwyer will hopefully be able to return to match the NHL hands of the newly acquired Chris Stewart, although he did not look good after the knee on knee collision that took him out of last week’s game with Coventry. If he can play it will minimise the disruption which will be compounded by finding a role for instant cult hero Jordan Smotherman. The Giants are far from a one man team, and without Dwyer Darcy Murphy and Kyle Baun both looked to be getting to their best form against Nottingham last weekend. This game is sure to be a much tighter affair than the run and gun offering served up by both teams last Sunday, and with Nottingham still looking to build some consistency for their playoff run and looking to avenge the recent defeat, they will be tough to beat after the Guildford games.

A six point weekend is difficult at any time, but especially in the midst of a title chase and considering the quality of opposition this weekend. I feel four points would be a good return, six would be fantastic and really keep the pressure on Cardiff. Simply put, the rollercoaster is running all the way to March, with a weekly mantra of, “this weekend is the biggest weekend in the Giants’ title race since last weekend”. Buckle up, as an intense two months of hockey continues in the Land of the Giants.

Going Fife Hole

Bouncebackability. It’s not a word. I know it is officially now, but… No.

I prefer resilience. “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”. The Belfast Giants have had two big disappointments in the past two weeks, having firstly lost out on penalties in the Continental Cup and then giving up four points to rivals Cardiff in an ultimately frustrating league double-header last weekend. We will see just how resilient a group this Giants team is this week as they skate into a home double-header, taking on the pesky Fife Flyers on both Friday and Saturday night where they must show they can rebuild their title challenge.

The Flyers come to town looking to find their form after having had their own title aspirations derailed this season, with injuries to both Evan Bloodoff and Chase Schaber exposing a lack of depth in the forward lines when compared to their title rivals in Belfast and Cardiff. They won eight games and lost eight since the start of December while these players sat on the injured list, and they could get drawn into the playoff qualification battle if they cannot improve their consistency. The Giants, they simply must take all four points this weekend if they are serious about pushing the Cardiff Devils to the end of the season for the 2018/19 Elite League Championship.

Style of Play

At home Fife have an aggressive forecheck of their own, but they tend to play a more conservative 1-2-2 forecheck away from Kirkaldy, with one forward pressuring the puck and two banks of two players trying to stop rushes and passes through the neutral zone. In their defensive zone, Fife tend to keep their weak side winger higher and further towards that side of the ice than Cardiff, and will try to get the puck to this player once they regain possession. This forward is then joined by his linemates skating into the neutral zone to try to exit the zone together at speed and create an odd man rush. If the Giants can win board battles in the Flyers’ zone, there may be space available for the Giants defence to sneak into the slot for a scoring chance.

Fife are well matched with the Giants’ forecheck as their defence typically look to pass to the forwards instead of skating the puck, which can nullify an aggressive forecheck. The defence often make the quick pass to the half wall (the boards aligned with the faceoff dots), which can then be chipped to a player skating through centre ice to complete the breakout. The Giants will have to be careful not to give up their own odd man rushes against this breakout, and it may be worthwhile putting extra focus on the often quoted “third man high” to disrupt Fife’s play.

Key Players

Scott Aarssen is a quality defenceman with a good first pass who fits Fife’s style of play well. He will also look to pinch up on the weak side of the rush, and joins the offensive zone cycle when possible. Evan Stolfet is also able to provide a quality pass, and has a heavy shot from the point which the Giants must be ready for. Stoflet’s shot is a potent weapon on Fife’s powerplay, where he will shoot from both the point and the left circle whenever he switches with Paul Crowder. Rick Pinkston is having a solid season both offensively and defensively, and has the skating ability to join the rush when the opportunity arises.

Offensively Carlo Finucci is a skilful player the Giants will have to keep an eye on. He is the forward you often see higher in the defensive zone ready to stretch the play into the neutral zone, and has the hands to feed Crowder and Brett Bulmer on a dynamic first line. Evan Bloodoff will also look to break the zone carrying the puck on the second line. Bulmer has moved up and down the line-up to cover the injuries to Bloodoff and Schaber, but has scored regularly on any line, and Crowder is always a danger as one of the top ten scorers in the Elite League this year. The right-handed forward has scored two-thirds of his points at even strength, but will also get points on shots from the Ovechkin position he frequents on the left hand side of Fife’s powerplay.

Much like Cardiff’s Layne Ulmer, Danick Gauthier earns his points in the slot. He can play in the centre position on one of Fife’s powerplay units, and will skate from deep in the high slot in five on five play as well. Chase Schaber has a quality shot and a willingness to crash the net, he has scored at almost a point a game when he has not been injured.

Depth Chart
Finucci – Crowder – Bulmer
Bloodoff – Cazzola – Basara
Buesa – Schaber – Basaraba
Robertson – Gauthier – McKenzie
Chad Smith

Aarssen – Stolfet
Pinkston – Issacs
Birzins- Moore
Wands – Cochrane

Shane Owen
Andrew Little

In the previous two league meetings between the teams this season, the Flyers ran out 4-2 and 2-1 victors in both games. The Giants played reasonably well, but were still trying to find chemistry throughout the team and individual mistakes cost them, with Fife being too good not to punish them. When it comes to the special teams battle the Giants should be wary of the Flyers pressing on the penalty kill, as they have six short-handed goals on the season (lying joint second in the league), but the Giants have the advantage if penalties become a factor with their powerplay and penalty kill both being better on paper than Fife’s over the season.

The Giants will be looking to put on a show at the SSE arena this weekend, knowing any dropped points may hand the league title to the Devils. The Flyers will be looking to start to put together a run of form to carry them into a strong playoff run, with a bunch of speedy forwards who will test the Giants. It should be another exciting pair of games as the Giants try to bounce back in the chase for the EIHL title.

Eight Point Weekend

Oh okay, fair enough, there might be more to it than, “win two games.”

The Belfast Giants have travelled to Cardiff for what could be a massive weekend in the Elite League Title race, as the Giants and the Cardiff Devils battle out a double-header of games tonight and tomorrow afternoon. The reigning champions the Devils sit top of the league with 58 points, with the Giants now lying five points behind in second place with 53 points after competing in European action last weekend. These battles will be important; the gap between the two teams could grow to nine points or shrink to just one depending on the results of the tilts in Cardiff this weekend.

The Devils are a good team with excellent depth and they deserve to be where they are in the league. Similarly, the Giants are a very good team, with quality throughout the lineup, and if both teams stay fit for the rest of the season the league could have one of its most exciting two-horse races in years. That will depend on how this weekend plays out. I’ve only been able to look at the highlights of some of the Devils games so far, but no matter what you see they will be a challenge for the Giants, and if the Giants are to carry four points back to Belfast they will have earned them.

The Devils like to be aggressive on the forecheck all over the ice at home, even from faceoffs. If the Devils lose a faceoff, the wingers typically go to work immediately trying to pressure the puck carrier and take away passes. The Devils seem to like to use a 2-1-2 forecheck with one forward pressuring the puck quickly followed by another, looking to limit their opponents’ time and space on the puck. With the movement on the forecheck, the forwards seem to be able to cycle back into a 2-3 forecheck in the neutral zone quite easily if they can’t gain possession of the puck. If they win the puck, they like to cycle down low until they create an opportunity, but will often move the puck to the blueline where most of their defencemen are not shy about shooting the puck with traffic.

The Devils also pressure the puck in their defensive zone, where they are particularly aggressive on the strong side of the ice. The Devils’ weak side winger will stay at the top of the slot in line with a defenceman and Ben Bowns, trying to cut the ice in two to allow the other two forwards and defenceman to try to turn over the puck on the boards. The penalty kill works in a similar fashion, although the Giants have an advantage in that area with the Devils’ PK running at 80.45% compared to 85.94% for the Giants. The Devils seem well-drilled in moving as a unit to one side of the ice or the other as necessary, but if the Giants can move the puck quickly to the weak side they may be able to break the Devils pressure and get scoring opportunities.

Aside from the obvious threats, Joey Martin, Charles Linglet, or Evan Mosey, Andrew Fournier is a constant worry for Elite League defences when he is on the ice. He can skate with the puck as well as any D-man in the league, orchestrating offence from both bluelines. He will often pinch into the offensive zone cycle. One thing I’ve noticed in a few games this season though, is I think he can be pressured into mistakes in the defensive zone. Similarly to Derek Walser, who as good as he was going forward would have difficulty with board battles in his own zone behind the net, I think this is a pressure point that the Giants could exploit. If Fournier gets skating he’s dangerous and you have to respect him. If he can be stopped in his own zone before he gets going, he can be forced to pass into space, and I think the Giants can have some success against him and create chances.

The line of Linglet, Dixon and Hadden is an interesting one. Offensively they are always a threat, and Linglet is a dangerous playmaker, however Linglet’s plus/minus number is lower than you would expect for such an offensive danger. Plus/minus itself has to be taken with a pinch of salt, since it is often misleading taken on its own, but Linglet has 31 even strength points and is only +15 in plus/minus. So his line is conceding goals when he is on the ice as well as scoring them. Hedden and Dixon are much closer between points and plus/minus when you take out powerplay points, so it may be that Linglet played on a poorer line defensively before now, and Cardiff’s coach Andrew Lord does seem to move his lines around, but Linglet, Dixon and Hadden did seem to be on the ice together for quite a few goals against. It will be interesting to see if this is something the Giants can exploit.

The Giants will also have to be wary of Layne Ulmer when he is on the ice. Most notably on the powerplay, Ulmer plays in the slot and has the reactions to get a quick wristshot on target. He can ghost into the slot unannounced on 5vs5 play as well. It is a testament to the team the Devils have built that the Giants can’t look to just shut one or two lines down, as there are threats from all four Devils lines.

Possible Lines* (one import must sit out)
Bentivoglio – Martin – Pope
Linglet – Dixon – Hedden
Haddad – Morrisette – Ulmer
Duggan – Myers – Mosey
Livingston

Fournier – Richardson
Schiestel – Reddick
Batch – Louis

Ben Bowns
Thomas Murdy

The Devils are in the driver’s seat, and could get one hand on the Elite League trophy with four points this weekend. The Giants came within penalty shots of lifting the Continental Cup last weekend, and went on a long unbeaten spell in the league earlier in the season, they will be hungry to keep the rest of their league campaign on track and give themselves a chance of beating Cardiff to the league title. The Giants also have three scoring lines which the Devils will have trouble containing, and Josh Roach can have as similar an impact on a game as Fournier can. Whether you are in Cardiff, or in Belfast watching the webcast, buckle up for a great two game series as the two best teams in the country go head to head.

Arlan Fosters Pain For The Giants

So who lost the last page of the script on Sunday then? Own up. The stars were aligning, the script was writing itself, an epic European trophy win was within the grasp of the Belfast Giants. Then, in a moment, it wasn’t.

The Giants won a silver trophy at the Continental Cup Final in Belfast on Sunday evening, but unfortunately second place silver medals came with it as the Giants lost out on winning the title to Khazahkstan’s Arlan Kokshetau. The deciding contest finished 3-2 after penalty shots, following a scintillating game of hockey.

Arlan built a 2-0 lead against the run of play in the first period, through which the Giants could rightly be justified in thinking they should have been in front. Goals by Sergei Yegorov and Vadim Yermolayev came from only two of six shots on target taken by the Khazak side in the period, the Giants spending the lion’s share of the period in Arlan’s zone. (1)

A largely lacklustre second period frustrated the Giants, caused by a well organised Arlan defence. Puck dumps would be picked up by Kokshetau’s deep defenseman, and skated rushes would be held up by a solid Arlan blueline. The Giants structure was tested for a time as the game became a run-and-gun shooting match, tilting in favour of Arlan, but goaltender Tyler Beskorowany helped earn himself the Netminder of the Tournament award with some phenomenal saves that kept the Giants in the game. But that’s just page twenty-five of a Giants game. We were still on script, the comeback expected any minute.

The third period begins in the same vein until the Giants’ script kicks into high gear. Chris Higgins scores at 47.44 to make the score 2-1 and the crowd erupts. The team responds, upping the tempo of their game. A guttural roar bellows from the fans at 48.56 as Dustin Johner strikes to tie the game at 2-2. The crowd believes.

And then a 5 on 3 penalty kill for 1 minute 48 seconds. We’re done. Surely we can’t kill… The team go to work. The crowd go to work in support. The penalty is killed.

And then. A Giants powerplay with 2.01 left on the clock. It’s there. Surely. Just one more roar.

Arlan are resolute, the clock runs down without a Giants goal and we head to overtime. But that’s okay, because we’re running to script, the Giants never win anything the easy way.

Higgins takes a penalty in OT. 4 on 3. The inevitable win becomes impossible. Surely. A sense of dread hangs over the crowd. Arlan are too good not to finish it.

But the script, the script. The Giants kill a powerplay. In overtime. That shouldn’t happen. We’re nailed on.

We’re not. The overtime plays out and we go to the drama of penalties. The crowd haven’t stopped since the second goal went in. Arlan go first.

Save, miss, miss, save, save, Besko! Besko! Save. Miss. Arlan goal. Giants miss.

Arlan miss… Giants goal!

The order is reversed after five penalties each.

Miss.

Goal.

A vacuum sucks the breath out of the rink.

Someone should win an award for the picture of captain Blair Riley accepting the trophy for second place at centre ice (2), because I can’t remember seeing a photograph that captures so well the feeling of wanting the ground to swallow you up. He is there in body, but he is not there. If we get beat 4-0, you accept that we were the second best team on the night. To come so close? You can feel the pain in his eyes.

Because you felt it too.

It’s hard not to get “too low” going against the famous “not too high, not too low” coaching maxim right now, but the Giants are in action this weekend and need to be back at their best returning to league action. They’ll be ready. We’re a very good team.

The fans are hurting. The management is hurting. The coaches are hurting.

But perhaps most importantly, the players are hurting. The Riley photograph, the players’ tears on the ice. We’re going to get angry. Adam Keefe may not need to say anything motivational for the rest of the season.

The Belfast Giants team is a wounded animal right now, and you know what they say about a wounded animal.

S’up Cardiff.

(1): Game sheet at: http://continental-cup2019-groupf.iihf.hockey/

(2): Image available at: presseye.com

They’re All Here On A European Tour (Part Deux)

How will we get there? Turns out a local taxi, or perhaps a train, they aren’t as bad as you think? You could maybe even drive there if you like. Many people lament the Glider buses, but as it happens they run right past the rink.

The Belfast Giants are on their way this weekend to their first appearance in a European final since the Continental Cup Superfinal in 2003. Their travel plans were kindly simplified by the IIHF at the end of November when the Giants were awarded the tournament, having been deemed the best option available to host the final out of the remaining teams in the competition. Giants fans may have been hoping for a trip to mainland Europe, having already hosted the semi-final in Belfast, but a chance at winning silverware on home ice is rare, and rarer still is the chance to raise a European trophy on the ice in Belfast.

Four teams have qualified for the final, which will play out over a three day round robin format from 11th-13th January 2019. The two finalists from the Belfast group, the Giants and Poland’s GKS Katowice, will be joined by the two qualifiers from the French semi-final held in Lyon, HC Gomel of the Belarusian Extraliga, and Arlan Kokshetau, playing out of the Kazakhstan Vyschaya Liga. Kokshetau finished top of the French group in November, defeating Gomel 3-0 in the last game of the tournament to book their place in the final (1).

As with the semi-final, I’ve looked at the four teams’ form coming into the final, and watched through games and highlights to pick out who could be the key players for each team, how each team likes to play, and how they might fare in the tournament.

arlan kokshetau

Arlan Kokshetau qualified for the Continental Cup by winning their first ever championship last season. They currently sit top of the Kazakh Vyschaya Liga, three points ahead of Ertis Pavlodar at the time of writing. Two of the team’s forwards also sit atop the league’s scoring charts, centre Ivan Kiselyev scoring 38 points in 38 games so far this season, and left winger Dmitri Potaichuk scoring 33 points (2). Kiselyov in particular has a dangerous shot, and looks to be someone the other three teams will have to keep an eye on throughout the weekend. They score many and concede few, averaging less than two goals against per game, but a big reason for their goal difference being +63 at present is the fact that the league is top-heavy in quality, with HK Astana only winning one league game so far this season, and Gornyak Rudny only winning nine.

Kokshetau seem to play the more up tempo style of hockey of the two qualifiers from Lyon. They play fairly directly up the ice, mostly looking to pass to the forwards instead of activating their defencemen. They look to breakout down the right side of the ice more often than not, passing to the winger with a center skating through the middle as support. They have an abundance of left-handed defensemen from what I have watched, which may be why they breakout in this fashion, so an outside-in forecheck from the right wing may be one way to force the defence onto their backhand and disrupt their breakout. The only right-handed defenceman I’ve seen was Alexander Syrei, who may not be eligible for the competition due to having played against Kokshetau for HK Gomel in the semi-final group stage. I would also expect to see the Arlan forwards trying to shoot as often as possible, as many of their wingers seem to play on their off-wing (3).

Arlan look to forecheck quite aggressively with typically two forecheckers, and they often have three men hold the blueline when defending the rush in a left wing lock, occasionally pulling a defenceman deeper into their zone. Kokshetau’s goaltending in tandem with their defence is a big reason why they sit at the top of the standings. Ivan Poloshkov is nominally Kokshetau’s number one goaltender, sitting with an impressive 1.38 GAA over twenty games with seventeen wins and four shutouts on the season, but he has split the season with Mikhail Demidov, who has eight wins on fifteen games with two shutouts of his own.

Other players to look out for are Alexander Nesterov, who has spent the last ten seasons playing in the KHL, and Eliezer Sherbatov, a skilful high energy winger who just recently signed for the club on 12th December. Defencemen Yakov Seleznyev and Vladimir Malevich both look to shoot from the point, Malevich often looking for shooting lanes on the second powerplay unit.

Arlan look to be a dangerous side for their rivals, they have speed and skill throughout the forward lines, and the defence seem calm and patient with the puck. The schedule for the weekend pits Belfast against Kokshetau in the last game of the tournament on Sunday, and this could very well be the game that decides the outright winners of the Continental Cup.

Possible Lines

Dmitri Potaichuk – Ivan Kiselyev – Konstantin Savenkov
Denis Klemeshov – Yevgeni Gasnikov -Alexander Nesterov
Vadim Yermolayev – Vadim Berdnikov (A) – Eliezer Sherbatov
Nikita Bazhenov – Anton Petrov – Bari Saburov
Aidar Kusaiyn

Sergei Yegorov (A) – Vladislav Kolesnikov (C)/Anton Kazantsev
Yakov Seleznyev – Aleksandr Syrei*
Vladimir Malevich – Stanislav Borovikov
Vitali Shulga

Ivan Poloshkov
Mikhail Demidov
Dmitri Zykin

hk_gomel

HK Gomel from Belarus qualified for the tournament after finishing third in league competition last year. Both Belarusian champions Neman Grodno and runners-up Yunost Minsk entered the Champions Hockey League this season, Minsk earning their berth in the CHL by way of winning the Continental Cup in 2018. Gomel lie fifth in the Belarusian Extraliga at present, the 2017 Belarusian Cup winners being unable to find consistent form of late, though they have beaten league leaders Minsk after penalties recently.

Gomel have struggled to score goals in league play, only scoring 76 times through 36 games at the time of writing (4). The team do not have any players in the top twenty in league point scoring, and have lost their two top scorers on offense and defense respectively in the past month; Alexander Zhidkikh moving to league leaders Yunost Minsk on 28th November, and defenseman Aleksandr Yeronov moving to Katowice’s rivals GKS Tychy on 23rd December. Gomel will also be without two more of their key players through the first half of the season, as Igor Revenko hasn’t played a game since 16th October, and Aleksandr Syrei hasn’t suited up since 24th November, since signing with Kokshetau.

They do have Evgenyi Solomonov, a skilled winger with nineteen points on the year, and Yevgeny Khuzeyev, a sniping left winger who plays on his off wing and is their current top goalscorer with ten goals on the season. Beyond these two players in the current Gomel line-up, there aren’t many players scoring at more than a point every two games. Gomel’s special teams play flags up this issue, as the team’s powerplay is only scoring on 18.25% of it’s powerplay time.

The team often seem to have an aggressive penalty kill, pressing their opponents’ powerplay in the zone, and have scored four shorthanded goals on the season, but the PK is not playing as the coach would like overall, killing penalties at a mid-table 80.42% of the time. The team generally seems to have difficulty in clearing their defensive zone, since a lot of the goals that I have seen conceded at home have come from Gomel’s opposition pinching up to the half-wall and turning the puck over. This trend ran through several different game highlights, suggesting it may be a successful strategy to create a lot of offensive zone pressure against the Belarusians.

Their goaltending is split between Alexei Merzlov and Roman Bobariko. Both goaltenders have respectable numbers on the season, earning .919 and .916 save percentages respectively at the time of writing, with Bobariko taking more of the starts in the past month. The team favours a defensive 1-3-1 system to balance their lack of scoring, suggesting they will look to keep their games in Belfast tight to have a chance of success. With the offensive power on show from the other three teams, Gomel’s goaltenders will likely have to steal games if the Belarusians want to lift the cup. I see the Belarusian side as the underdogs in the final, but a dogged defensive performance could still trip one of the more fancied teams up.

Possible Lines
Yevgeny Khuzeyev – Nikolai Suslo -Evgeny Solomonov
Pavel Musienko – Andrei Kolosov – Denis Zaichik
Dmitri Koloyshkin – Andrei Pereguda – Pavel Golubich
Nikita Yurchenko – Ilya Zhukovsky -Alexander Syomochkin

Nikita Trukhanov – Yevgeni Goranin
Maxim Magaletsky – Yegor Ivanov
Ilya Letov – Mikhail Prus
Anton Shevchuk – Egor Rublev

Roman Bobariko
Alexei Merzlov

Katowice are the known quantity for the Giants, having already beaten Belfast 2-3 in a fantastic game of hockey at the SSE arena in November. Since they last met, Katowice have won ten games and lost three in all competitions. They have lost some form recently in dealing with injuries to the line-up, but throughout the past few months the team amounted an impressive twenty-two game win streak in league play, which was only broken on 20th December in the last game of a sixteen game road trip, including the Continental Cup semi-final games. Katowice still sit three points clear of GKS Tychy on top of the Polish Hokej Liga at the time of writing (5).

Top defenseman Eetu Heikkinen left the club on the 05th December citing personal reasons, and has since been replaced by another puck moving Finn, Jesse Jyrkkiö, who has stepped straight into Heikkinen’s spot on the top defensive pairing. Jyrkkiö fills a similar role to Heikkinen, and has scored at close to a point per game with HDD Jesenice this season, playing in the same Alps Hockey League that Rittner Baum play in.

Arguably the star of Katowice’s semi-final appearance in Belfast, Patryk Wronka has recently missed games through injury but has been back in the side of late. He has 46 points in 33 league games for the club, not a surprise considering his level of play in the SSE. Two more standouts in Belfast have missed game time for Katowice, Grzegorz Pasiut and Tomasz Malasinski, the team’s captain currently recovering from an injured finger (6). Marek Strzyzowski and Bartosz Fraszko have filled in admirably for the injured players, Strzyzowski scoring 13 points in 12 games since joining the club just before November’s semi-final.

Katowice coach Tom Coonen has his team playing a fast puck possession game that is enjoyable to watch, and they can spend long periods in the offensive zone due to their creative cycle work. The goal for their opponents will be the same as before, disrupt the Polish team from skating as much as possible. Easier said than done, but I feel the Giants have the players to counter Katowice’s speed, in the same way that Team GB’s aggressive forecheck at the 2017 World Championships in Belfast countered the speed of Team Japan’s centres.

Katowice’s first line is a threat every time they are on the ice, with Wronka particularly able to unlock any defence. If Malasinski and Pasiut are fit, the second line provides a potent one-two punch, but even if they miss out, there is speed and quality throughout the line-up. Katowice will also have a large support cheering on the team for a full sixty minutes, and the game on Saturday night against the Giants should be another memorable spectacle. Katowice have every chance of claiming the Continental Cup, and if they can beat Kokshetau in the first game of the tournament they will believe they can go all the way and lift the trophy.

Possible Lines

Mikolaj Lopuski – Jesse Rohtla – Patryk Wronka
Janne Laakonen
Grzegorz Pasiut* – Tomasz Malasinski (c)*
Bartosz FraszkoPatryk KrezolekMaciej Urbanowicz
Maciej RybakRadoslaw Sawicki Marek Strzyzowski

Jesse Jyrkkiö – Jakub Wanacki
Martin Cakajik – Dusan Devecka
Damian Tomasik – Oskar Krawczyk
Tomasz Skokan – Niko Tuhkanen*

Kevin Lindskoug
Michal Kieler
Kamil Berggruen

*Possible IR

belfast giants

The Giants sit one point behind defending Elite League champions the Cardiff Devils, despite an inconsistent run of form in December. The Devils have similarly dropped points, as the two teams continue to match each other at the top of the standings in what is becoming a two-horse race for the EIHL league title (7). The Giants prepared for their European adventure with a four point weekend against the Sheffield Steelers in two tightly fought clashes, and will be well rested for the start of the tournament on Friday compared to their opponents, who still have games to play before travelling to Belfast.

The Giants are almost at full strength heading into the final, with Colin Shields returning to the ice this past weekend against the Steelers. Blair Riley has been scoring consistently for the Giants this year, as the line of Riley, Darcy Murphy and David Rutherford have continued to light the league up. Patrick Dwyer showed against Sheffield that he has the ability to put the team on his back and carry them over the line if need be. Scoring depth is an advantage the Giants have, as several players could step up on any given night for the game winning goal. The defence have been relatively stingy, working hard in front of Tyler Beskorowany who continues to impress with his stellar goaltending performances.

The Black Ace in the pack is the “Belfast Datsyuk” Chris Higgins. Higgins is a fan favourite in Belfast after his highlight reel plays have lit up the opposition and the wider hockey social media world through three seasons with the Giants. He had retired from the sport, but has returned to Belfast to replace the outgoing Francis Beauvillier.

On his day Higgins can rip a team apart, but he will only have had two weeks of practice with the team, and the game against Gomel on the 11th will be his first competitive game having sat out the double-header with Sheffield. It’s difficult to find a spot for him in the line-up with how the team have played, as I don’t think anyone really deserves to drop down a line right now, but if he can find some chemistry on the top two lines he could be a key contributor for the Giants. In some ways it may be better to try him on the third line, as if he can fire us to three scoring lines the Giants would be hard to beat, it’s a good problem for Adam Keefe to have.

The Giants have struggled with three-in-three games this season, losing to Katowice in November, and recently to Dundee after winning games against Milton Keynes and Glasgow on the two previous nights. Each team plays the same schedule this weekend however, and the Giants have the advantage of their home routine and playing the late game each night. From a Giants perspective, they would hope that if they are in a position to win the Cup come Sunday night, fatigue won’t be a factor in raising their game to try to win a championship. The team has more quality depth than in recent seasons and can play all of their imports in the Continental Cup, for me the Giants have a team that can win this competition.

Possible Lines

Darcy Murphy – Blair Riley (c) – David Rutherford
Chris Higgins – Patrick Dwyer – Kyle Baun
Hunter Bishop – Dustin Johner – Colin Shields
Lewis Hook – Jonathan Boxill – Jonathan Ferland
Paul Swindlehurst

Curtis Leonard – Josh Roach
Kendall McFaull – Kevin Raine
Mark Garside – Jim Vandermeer

Tyler Beskorowany
Stephen Murphy
Andrew Dickson

The Continental Cup final promises to be an exciting weekend for club and city, with for me three teams capable of taking the trophy. To win the Continental Cup in our home barn would be a fantastic achievement for the Giants, and they have a team that has every chance of becoming Continental Cup Champions 2018/19.

Once again, hard work off the ice coupled with the team’s efforts on the ice will provide a festival of hockey for fans from Belfast and beyond who take in the Continental Cup final, and it will be a privilege to be able to watch the tournament play out in Belfast.

Once again, I can’t wait.

(1) Continental Cup Group D: http://continental-cup2019-groupf.iihf.hockey/en/news/arlan,-gomel-advance-to-final

(2) Khazak Hockey Championship statistics found at: https://icehockey.kz  (Correct as of 05/01/19)

(3) Kokshetau game footage through Arlan’s official website: http://arlanclub.kz

(4) HK Gomel information sourced at: http://hcgomel.by

(5) Katowice statistics sourced at: http://www.hokej.net

(6) Katowice team information found at: https://hokej.gkskatowice.eu/index

(7) Giants information sourced from: https://belfastgiants.com and https://eliteleague.co.uk