‘Twas the week before Christmas
It looks like the Giants have come out of the sidings and are rolling along the main line. They remain unbeaten now in five consecutive matches after the weekend’s results. If they can continue this run of form they will be considered real contenders but it is a long haul yet to winning any trophies!
Starting with the first leg of the Challenge Cup quarterfinals in Manchester the Giants impressively fought back from a two-goal deficit to earn a 3-3 draw against the Manchester Storm. The second leg will take place at Belfast’s SSE Arena in less than a week’s time on Tuesday 20th December. Stephen Murphy got the start in the Giants net with Ryan Martinelli still missing from the lineup through injury.
The opening period in Manchester was all about Stephen Murphy. The Giants’ netminder produced a string of stellar saves. Murphy denied the Manchester Storm multiple times and was the main reason the game remained scoreless after 20 minutes.
The deadlock was broken with only 89 seconds gone in the second period as the home side took the lead. Manchester’s Captain Trevor Johnson found himself all alone in front of the Giants’ net, picked up the loose puck and fired home for the first goal of the game.
Little over two minutes later and the scores were level. Blair Riley controlled the puck in the Manchester zone, passed off to Derrick Walser who fed the puck to Jeff Mason for a great finish past Spanswick in the Storm goal.
The home side once again took the lead and their second goal was a mirror image of their first. Mario Valery-Trabucco picked up the puck at close rang, squeezed the puck past Murphy and give his side a 2-1 advantage.
Further into the middle period the score moved on to 3-1 on a five-on-three powerplay when the Storm’s Cody Cartier’s shot flew wide of the net, rebounded off the backboards and fell fortunately to Matt Bissonnette. He could not miss the gaping goal.
The Giants stepped up their intensity following the Storm’s third goal and reworked their efforts fighting back through James Desmarais who created space for himself in the corner, found Steve Saviano who fired the puck into the Storm goal for the Giants’ second of the night.
It took Belfast until the third period to orchestrate the tying goal almost mid-way through the final period. It came after neat work from Matt Nickerson, who found Chris Higgins’ stick skating in on the Manchester goal. Higgins shot the puck home past Spanswick at 48:31.
There were no more goals in this first leg and the game will go back to Belfast for the second leg on Tuesday 20th December tied at 3-3. So, the final score after the first leg of the quarter final of the Challenge Cup ended 3-3. The Giants’ Man of the Match was awarded to #12 Steve Saviano.
That comeback boosted the Giants’ confidence and enabled them to look at their home game in Belfast against the Nottingham Panthers as an opportunity to prove their continuity. They started Saturday’s matchup with with Jackson Whistle in net and Ryan Martinelli missing out through injury.
Former Panther Brandon Benedict opened the scoring deflecting Jonathan Boxill’s shot into the roof of the Panthers’ net with just over eight minutes played on the game clock. Veteran defender Jim Vandermeer doubled the home side’s lead thirty seconds later as his neat backhanded finish beat netminder Miika Wiikman, assisted by Blair Riley and Chris Higgins.
Brian McGrattan helped his side get themselves back into this game when he netted Nottingham’s first goal later in the first period, assisted by Lachowicz and Farmer. However the Giants’ Alex Foster restored the Giants’ two-goal advantage, still in the goal spree-opening period finishing off a skillful move, assisted by Steve Saviano and Colin Shields.
Nottingham’s Jeff Brown pulled back yet another for the visitors, scoring late in the first period and assisted by Bettering and Carter. This ensured the Panthers were within one after the opening period. It was Brown, again who got the leveler for Nottingham when he netted early in the second period.
However Derrick Walser fired Belfast ahead once more shortly after the Panthers had leveled assisted by Blair Riley and Michael Quesnele. Dan Spang’s second period score, assisted by Moran and Lachowicz brought the Panthers back to level terms after two periods of play.
In the third period it turned out to be an end-to-end affair with both netminders being kept busy. Blair Riley and Colin Shields combined well midway through for Shields to score the Giants’ fifth of the night and the all-important go-ahead goal.
Blair Riley then turned from provider to scorer when he increased the home side’s advantage to 6-4. The Panthers took a gamble by pulling their netminder for the final few minutes only for Chris Higgins to cut loose from the Giants’ zone and send the puck into the empty net.
The final score was Belfast Giants 7-4 Nottingham Panthers and the Giants’ Man of the Match went to #25 Blair Riley.
Next up was a Sunday trip to the Cathedral City of Coventry. The Giants were victorious 3-0 to close the gap on the league leading Cardiff Devils for the second successive weekend.
Stephen Murphy’s impressive shutout combined with two goals from Chris Higgins and Steve Saviano sees the Giants now eight points behind Cardiff having played two less games.
In Coventry Murphy started in the Giants’ net while Ryan Martinelli sat out Sunday’s game through injury. The opening period was played mostly in the neutral zone as both teams sized each other up. The Giants had the better of the play yet with no clear cut scoring opportunities. The game remained scoreless following the first 20 minutes of play.
The teams stepped up intensity in the second period with plenty of end-to-end action. Both netminders, Murphy and Stewart were the busiest skates on the rink making important saves. The Giants’ goalie was in stellar form.
The deadlock was finally broken with less than four minutes remaining in the middle period. Chris Higgins netted after an impressive move, assisted by Mark Garside and Blair Riley to give the visitors the lead after two periods of play.
The Giants carried their momentum into the third period netting eight minutes into the period. This lifted Belfast’s score line to 2-0 with a classy goal from Steve Saviano carrying the puck into the Blaze zone, faking to shoot before firing low into the net.
The Giants picked up their first powerplay of the night late in the game. After moving the puck well, Chris Higgins was on hand to finish off the rebound from Michael Forney’s shot late in the final period to extend the lead once again.
Higgins’ goal was the final act of the night and, with a 3-0 win the Stena Line Belfast Giants claimed two important league points to close the gap on first place.
The final score was Coventry Blaze 0-3 Belfast Giants and the Giants’ Man of the Match was given to #68 Chris Higgins.
The Giants return to action with three home games in Belfast this week. Tuesday sees the Manchester Storm visit for the Challenge Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg, with the tie finely poised at 3-3.
The Edinburgh Capitals are the visitors on Thursday and Friday for back-to-back Elite League games again at the SSE Arena, Belfast.
Written by Wayne Hardman