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
Fournier – Richardson
Schiestel – Reddick
Batch – Louis
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.