BELFAST – As teams up and down the Elite League prepare for the busy festive period the Belfast Giants have more reason than most to enjoy their Christmas turkey, sprouts and all the trimmings after another successful weekend.
A Friday night visit from the Fife Flyers appeared, on paper at least, to be the perfect start for the Giants and an easy 2 points, but, as is so often the case in the Elite League this season, nothing is as easy as it seems.
Fife made the journey across the Irish sea looking to spring a surprise and they very nearly achieved their goal, taking a slender 1 goal lead into the first intermission, however penalty trouble would come back to haunt Todd Dutiaume’s men with Belfast bagging a pair of power play goals to grab the advantage at the end of the second. Penalties would be an issue for both sides with referee Dean Smith the busiest man on the ice, calling 110 penalty minutes including 3 fights, 3 misconducts and Kyle Haines for a kneeing major half way through the third period.
In that third Fife would tie the score up to send the game to overtime but, once again, in the extra session it would be penalties that hurt the Flyers, Calvin Elfring bagging the game winning goal and set Belfast off on their way to another double weekend.
Saturday would see more visitors to the Odyssey, this time former head coach Doug Christiansen and his under-performing Sheffield Steelers side came to town looking to get their injury hit squad back in the running for league honours and pull Belfast back into the chasing pack.
None of the above happened as, not for the first time this season, Belfast put on a show for their home fans, scoring twice in the first, once in the second and two empty net goals in the third to complete something the Steelers are still searching to repeat, a double winning weekend, and in the process extend their lead at the top of the Elite League to a massive 7 points.
Widening that lead at the top did require help elsewhere last weekend and Belfast’s head coach, almost, got everything he wanted.
Fife headed home on Saturday for a live televised game with second in the table Braehead Clan and it was to be a goal fest, both teams scoring in all three periods to tie the game at 6 going into overtime when Danny Stewart notched his first of the night to claim the points, much to the delight of the noisy 1,776 in attendance.
That defeat cost the Clan ground on the top spot but nothing could prepare them for what happened on Sunday.
As away games go a trip to Lower Parliament Street isn’t one players usually look forward too, the Nottingham Panthers, back from their toils in Europe, wasted no time in announcing their return by lighting up Braehead for 8, yes 8, unanswered goals. Much of the blame for the defeat could be laid at Cardiff’s door though, on Saturday it was the Devils who handed Corey Neilson’s boys a 4-2 loss making Nottingham angry, and you don’t want to see them when they are angry, as Ryan Finnerty will now testify to.
That only left Dundee in the top three yet to play, indeed it was only a single game for the Stars this weekend and, as if he’d been a good boy all year, Belfast’s head coach got just what he wanted as Edinburgh bounced back from Saturday’s 7-1 thumping in Hull, which included a hat-trick from Jereme Tendler, to see off Dundee with a 3-2 triumph in the Scottish Capital.
Finally it was left to Coventry to add to Sheffield’s misery on Sunday as the final game of the weekend saw the Blaze score in all three periods and condemn the Steelers to yet another long trip back to Sheffield without anything to show for their work, thanks to a 4-1 Blaze victory.
So Belfast open up another points gap on the rest of the field but with other teams faltering and Nottingham looking like they are coming back into form who’s to say how long this lead will last and if the run in will have the familiar Giants against Panthers ring to it?