Find A Way

It should have been over.

The Belfast Giants and the Cardiff Devils both went into this past weekend knowing that any loss could hand the 2018/19 Elite League trophy to their title nemesis across the Irish Sea.

In many other years the league table has been wrapped up by now, with fewer teams fighting to get into the playoffs this late into the season. The race to find a way into the top eight is either done and dusted with the league champions crowned, or there are a handful of games left that can affect the final playoff positions in the table.

Not so this year, as we are in the crucible of one of the tightest Elite League title races yet, combined with one of the most open playoff qualification battles the league has seen amongst a number of playoff contending teams.

The title and playoff races have been intertwined running into the final weeks of the season, with results simultaneously affecting both ends of the table as both the Giants and the Devils have run a gauntlet of teams vying for the last available post-season slots.

The Title Race

Belfast Giants Fixtures

08/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 4 Glasgow Clan
15/03/19: Belfast Giants 4 – 1 Coventry Blaze
16/03/19: Belfast Giants 2 – 1 Coventry Blaze
22/03/19: Manchester Storm 5 – 2 Belfast Giants
24/03/19: Belfast Giants 5 – 1 Sheffield Steelers

27/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants
29/03/19: Belfast Giants – Fife Flyers
30/03/19: Belfast Giants – Dundee Stars

Cardiff Devils Fixtures

07/03/19: Fife Flyers 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
08/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Guildford Flames
16/03/19: Sheffield Steelers 5 – 4 Cardiff Devils
17/03/19: Cardiff Devils 2 – 0 Glasgow Clan
20/03/19: Glasgow Clan 2 – 4 Cardiff Devils
23/03/19: Cardiff Devils 4 – 0 Manchester Storm
24/03/19: Dundee Stars 3 – 1 Cardiff Devils

30/03/19: Cardiff Devils – MK Lightning
31/03/19: Coventry Blaze – Cardiff Devils

The Giants blinked first this past Friday night, losing 5-2 to the Manchester Storm in a frustrating night for the Giants against a Storm team who had won five and lost five of their last ten games. Resignation began to set in for the Giants’ fan base, with the feeling that the air brakes were finally being applied to the runaway rollercoaster that has been the tumultuous 2018/19 Elite League campaign.

Step up the Dundee Stars. Whilst the Giants were dispatching the Sheffield Steelers in Belfast to keep their title hopes alive on Sunday, the Devils had made the long trip from Cardiff to Dundee to face the Stars.

And they lost.

Dundee were always going to be a dangerous opponent on the night given Cardiff’s travel itinerary and the fact that a loss for Dundee would have all but ended their own chances of playoff qualification, but it was unexpected and has prolonged the title chase into the final week of the season.

The Giants head into Wednesday’s clash against the Coventry Blaze with their opponents needing three points from their three remaining games to be sure of knocking Dundee out of the running, and four points to guarantee finishing above the Storm. The Giants must find a way to win on Wednesday not only for their own title ambitions, but to try to ensure that Coventry’s last game against Cardiff is also meaningful for the Blaze.

If the Blaze are safely in a playoff position come Sunday the Devils may have an easier time of getting that last win. Coventry will want to beat Cardiff regardless of league position, and they will want to stay in playoff mode to be at their best for any potential quarter-final opponent, but the carrot of looking up at that last playoff spot would see Coventry giving everything, setting up a potential barn burner of a final league game to confirm both the champions and the playoff qualifiers.

The Giants’ title aspirations lie in tying the Devils on points and surpassing them on regulation wins, this being the first decider of league positions if two teams are tied on points. At present, the Devils have 37 regulation wins with the Giants on 36. The Giants need to find their way to two regulation wins to draw level with the Devils if Cardiff do lose one game in regulation.

For the Devils, it is simple; win two hockey games.

The Playoff Race

27/03/19
Coventry Blaze – Belfast Giants

29/03/19
Milton Keynes Lightning
v Manchester Storm

30/03/19
Belfast Giants
v Dundee Stars
Manchester Storm
v Coventry Blaze

31/03/19
Coventry Blaze v Cardiff Devils
Guildford Flames
v Dundee Stars

The Storm play the Milton Keynes Lightning on Friday night, the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture, who are playing out their last games in the Elite League before joining the newly formed second tier National League. The Storm then skate into the Coventry Skydome for their massive clash with the Blaze on Saturday night. If Coventry have lost to Belfast, and the Storm manage to beat the Lightning, then a win for the Storm against the Blaze would qualify them for the post-season, with the Storm having 61 points to the Blaze’s 58.

If the Storm first beat the Lightning and then the Blaze in overtime after a Belfast win on Wednesday they will have also qualified, as they would have either 20 or 21 regulation wins depending on the Lightning result. Coventry would lose out even if they did beat Cardiff, as they could only tie the Storm on 61 points, but they could only have a maximum of 18 regulation wins. Milton Keynes beating Manchester on Friday would keep the race alive should the Storm then beat the Blaze, as then the Blaze could still leapfrog Manchester with a win over the Devils.

Dundee meet the Giants on Saturday and the Guildford Flames on Sunday in their last two games of the season. As it stands, Dundee must win both of these games to qualify for the playoffs. Losing to Belfast would end their chances of qualification, as either Coventry or Manchester will pass the 58 point threshold in their game on Saturday, and Dundee can only reach 58 points with one win. For Dundee to qualify, they must win their two games in regulation, the Storm must lose one game in regulation, and the Blaze can only win one of their three games in overtime. The second tie-breaker, overall wins, is also in Coventry’s favour with 25 wins to Dundee’s 22.

The 2018/19 Elite League has been exciting at both ends of the table, and at least one of the races must go to the last day of the season. The rollercoaster is coming to the end of it’s run, but there are still twists and turns to come before the train trundles back into the station and everyone can get off, shake the legs out and lower the heart rates.

Until the playoffs a week later, at least.

Whatever happens this weekend, both teams at the top of the league would make worthy champions. May the best team win.

But let’s find a way.

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When The Blaze Come Skating In

“It’s a, It’s a, It’s a, It’s a goa…” Oh hey, didn’t see you there. I suppose we’d better get cracking. We’ve three more trophies to win.

The Belfast Giants will try to put out a second fire in less than a week on Friday and Saturday night, as they welcome the Coventry Blaze for a St. Patrick’s Day double-header in Belfast. The Blaze are battling to qualify for the end of season playoff tournament, whilst the Giants look to refocus on their league title campaign five days after claiming the 2019 Challenge Cup in a pulsating final in Cardiff.

The Playoff Race

The Blaze come into their weekend in Belfast sitting outside playoff qualification, currently level on 53 points with the Manchester Storm in ninth place. They hold two games in hand over Manchester, but two defeats in Belfast could give the Blaze a tough mountain to climb from their remaining six fixtures after Saturday night. They still have to play the Cardiff Devils and another game against the Giants, not to mention their games against playoff rivals the Fife Flyers, the Dundee Stars, and a game on the last weekend of the season against the Storm.

No one team is putting a run together to secure their place in the playoffs at the moment. Over the last ten games, the Blaze have won five and lost five, matching the Sheffield Steeler’s pace of 5-5 and bettering Manchester by two points, the Storm going 4-6 in that time. The Flyers also went 4-6 in their last ten games, with the Dundee Stars hitting a rough patch in only winning two of their last ten games. They are still only three points behind the Blaze and the Storm, but have a game in hand on the Manchester side.

Style of Play

The Blaze like to get the puck to the forwards quickly on the breakout. One breakout that the Blaze seem to use under pressure is for the right defenceman to make a pass to the forward on the right boards just before the blueline, who will then pass or tip the puck into the neutral zone for the other two forwards to skate on to at speed crossing into the offensive zone. If the Giants play their aggressive forechecking game this could be one the Blaze run with to break up that pressure. Ivan Puzic will also try to join the rush if the opportunity presents itself.

The powerplay tends to look to move to the right side of the ice on their zone entry, and set up in a 1-3-1 formation. From there, they like to make a pass from the half-wall to the weak side of the ice for a shot, either as they enter the zone or once they have set themselves up. If that is cut off they can move the puck around with Thom Flodqvist on the half-wall and Ben Lake moving to the strong side of the ice in front of the net as required to provide an option for the puck carrier. The top powerplay unit rounds out with Nicolai Bryhnisveen on the point, Tim Crowder waiting for the left circle shot, and Shawn Pauly in the high slot.

Defensively the Blaze will try to send two forecheckers into the zone to compete for the puck, but if there is no chance of gaining possession they will look to drop back into a wide 1-2-2 with the middle two forwards staying only slightly higher than the defencemen, positioned towards the boards, almost for a 1-4 look. The penalty kill looks for a 1-3 set-up, with one forward pressing up front and the other three players trying to hold the blueline.

The defence has been the major cause for concern for the Blaze this year, as they have conceded an average of 3.8 goals per game in the league, and it’s not hard to see why they are near the foot of the table when comparatively they score an average of 3.5 goals per game. Coventry have several defencemen who are willing to shoot the puck,  with Bryhnisveen and Chris Joyaux the healthy defencemen shooting when the opportunity presents itself.

The Blaze are currently undermanned on the blueline with the injury to Justin Hache, and have mostly gone with a five man rotation on defence in that time. If Hache is back for the double-header it will be a big boost for the team, otherwise they may be in for a long weekend against a typically aggressive Giants forecheck.

Danny Stewart seems to like moving players up and down the line-up, with Flodqvist the latest player to get a look on the top line alongside Nikiforuk and Lake in an effort to get more consistent chemistry. Kevin Morris joined Crowder and Shawn Pauly against the MK Lightning, and Morris has also moved elsewhere in other games with Ross Venus able to move up and take a shift on the second line.

Key Players

Ben Lake sits two points clear of Darcy Murphy in overall league points, with the two players sitting first and second in the scoring charts. Both have scored most of their points at even strength, with only fourteen and seventeen points coming on the powerplay respectively. It is difficult to take the puck away from Lake, and no matter how the Blaze are playing he can step up for a goal to change the momentum of the game.

Alex Nikiforuk plays mostly on the second line for the Blaze and has 64 points on the season, and Tim Crowder completes the Blaze’s set of three players in the top ten in league scoring with 63 points. Flodqvist is also a player in form, a skilful winger who seems to have created a dynamic option with Lake and Nikiforuk when moved there during the recent game against Milton Keynes. Goalscoring is not an issue for the Blaze, and they can light up a team on their night. On the back-end, Bryhnisveen will carry the offensive load for the team with Hache’s injury.

The Blaze have been short-handed for some time, with Jake Hansen sustaining an injury in Coventry’s game against Fife on 08th December, and Justin Hache being unavailable since 24th February, also injured against the Flyers.

Special Teams

The Blaze are struggling to get the 100% combined powerplay and penalty kill mark that many teams like to reach this season. Their powerplay is running at 16.73% on the campaign, with their penalty kill in last place at 70.83%, a full 7.27% behind the next team Dundee.

Depth Chart

Lake – Pauly – Crowder
Morris – Nikiforuk – Flodqvist
Venus – Lawrence – Ferrara
Florian – Forbes

Bryhnisveen – Joyaux
Puzic – Clements
Noble

Hackett
Hedley

The Title Race

The Giants currently sit four points behind the Cardiff Devils, and can ill afford any slip ups in their last seven games. The Devils have a tricky weekend travelling to playoff hopefuls Sheffield before returning home to face Guildford, who still have an outside chance of reaching third place and a potential European trip should Belfast or Cardiff win the playoff championship. Cardiff have three home and four away games left, and after this weekend still have to play the Glasgow Clan twice, who are trying to hang onto that insurance European spot. There are battles all over the league this year, and every game will have meaning running into the end of the season.

The Challenge Cup final saw the second game after returning from injury from Patrick Dwyer, and he showed his class by slotting in to the line-up like he hadn’t missed a day for the most part. Darcy Murphy was kept relatively quiet in the final, so he will be itching to get scoring again. He has already scored a coast-to-coast goal against the Blaze, so they will be wary of him, but the Blaze will be faced by a plethora of point-scoring, with Jordan Smotherman confirming the Giants’ depth on Sunday by scoring the Challenge Cup winning goal from the third line. If the Blaze bring five defencemen, the Giants will look to play a physical forechecking game to wear the Blaze down over the two nights.

The Challenge Cup trophy will be in the building, but the Giants can enjoy that win again at the end of the season. The Blaze will be playing playoff hockey this weekend. If the Giants are to catch Cardiff, they will have to overcome any Challenge Cup hangover and match Coventry’s intensity. Yet another two game series loaded with opportunity and peril.

We go again.

2019 Challenge Cup Final

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

Form

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

Key Players

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.

Depth Chart

Watters – Reddick – Dunbar
King – Foster – Davies
Crooks – Ferguson – Waller
Janssen – Ritt* – Krogh

Ackered – Craige
Baldwin – Lindhagen
Lundin – Abt

Carrozzi
Fullerton
Will

*Evan Ritt has not played since the 2nd February against the Sheffield Steelers.

The Belfast Giants

Form

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.

Key Players

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.

Depth Chart

Murphy – Rutherford – Riley
Higgins – Johner – Baun
Smotherman – Ferland – Shields
Swindlehurst – Boxill – Hook
Dwyer*

Leonard – Roach
McFaull – Raine
Garside – Vandermeer

Beskorowany
Murphy
Dickson

*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.

Special Teams

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

Nemesis

I didn’t intend to run with the rollercoaster theme through these articles, but this is how the season is panning out for the Belfast Giants as they chase their first Elite League title win since the 2013/14 season.

Whilst previous league campaigns may have felt more like Portrush’s own Barry’s Big Dipper, with a few thrills but mostly just nice views, this year has become more like Alton Towers’ Nemesis, with the Giants leading the league, then dropping to eleven points behind Cardiff, then briefly catching and passing the Devils on the live league table. The Panthers beat Cardiff, the Lightning were beating the Devils and then they weren’t, and then a great run of form for the Giants ended in a frustrating collapse to the Glasgow Clan last Sunday night, having beaten them in the Challenge Cup and the league in their two previous games. Much like the Alton Towers behemoth, there are still plenty of twists and turns yet to come this season before the silverware is handed out.

Belfast’s current nemesis the Cardiff Devils come to town this Friday and Saturday night, currently holding a three-point advantage in the title race before the teams face off in the SSE arena.

Since they last met, the Devils have won five and lost three league games, with the Giants having an 8-1-1 record in the league in that time, whilst also qualifying for the Challenge Cup Final through two legs against Glasgow. The Giants would likely have taken your hand off for a three-point gap on the 21st January, when they looked almost out of league contention after losing both games in Cardiff.

There isn’t a blood and guts rivalry between the two teams similar to the Giants and Sheffield last year, or the Coventry vs. Nottingham derby, or Derek Campbell and the crossbar. The rivalry is more akin to the Coventry Blaze of old, two teams at the top of the league battling for championships over a number of years. Cardiff all but won the league last year in the SSE arena, and whilst it is too early for the Giants to get one hand on the trophy this weekend, a four point weekend could give them the momentum and belief to go on and lift silverware, whilst getting some manner of payback in stopping Cardiff doing the same thing once again in the SSE arena.

I wrote about the Cardiff Devils for the previous double-header, but the form book goes out of the window for a game like this. Mike Hedden has had some success playing with Joey Martin and Sean Bentivoglio recently, with James Livingston getting some minutes with Charles Linglet and Stephen Dixon. Martin and Gleason Fournier have been impressive as usual, although I still believe you can put Fournier under pressure in his own zone.

For the Giants, Jordan Smotherman has had an immediate impact on the team with five points in six games, giving the Giants a dangerous top nine, with Lewis Hook dropping to the fourth line to give that triplet a further threat as well. Darcy Murphy continues to be the Giants’ most productive player five-on-five, with Blair Riley not far behind, hopefully both Murphy and Patrick Dwyer are fit to give the weekend the fullest possible best-on-best tilt available in the Elite League this year.

These games are usually more about who can outwork their opponents, and both teams will be ready to give everything knowing the damage they can do to their title rivals. The Giants can’t win the league this weekend, but they would almost be back to where they started after the last double-header between the two with anything worse than a split weekend. Win both games, and the Giants will have completed the comeback and will lead the league by one point. The Devils will still have a game in hand, but points on the board win leagues, and both teams still have to face the Clan, the Flyers and the Steelers before the end of the season.

This weekend is sure to be one to remember, as both the Giants and Devils gear up for a weekend of playoff hockey. The Devils can get one hand on the trophy. If the Giants want to win the league, they have to stop that.

I can’t wai… Actually, can we hold off a week or two, let the league settle a bit?

No?

Fair enough. I can’t wait…

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.

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.