The Cardiff Devils travelled over the Northern Ireland for a two-game clash against the Belfast Giants this past weekend, with some 500 fans joining the team for what may be two crucial contests in the Devils title defence.
Cardiff came into this road trip at the top of the EIHL standings but faced a tough opposition in the Giants, who occupy the second spot and look to be the biggest threat to upset the Devils chances of back to back League Titles when the season draws to a conclusion in March.
Belfast had the upper hand going into the doubleheader with two out of three wins on the season against the Devils, the first of which coming in the teams first meeting back in October as the Giants skated away with a 5 – 3 win at Ice Arena Wales, before the Devils took a 3 – 0 win in their first trip to Belfast in November.
The Giants had to take it to a shootout to get their second win in the previous three meetings in late March, but with a lot of ground to make up to catch Cardiff at the top of the league, they’d need to avoid going to overtime and giving the Devils any points when they played host to the current title holders.
In game one of the series on Friday night, it was the Devils looking to quiet the Belfast crowd early as captain Jake Morissette continued his fine form this season scoring his 14th league goal of the year inside four minutes to give the Devils a 1 – 0 lead on the powerplay.
Belfast took a little time finding their equaliser, but it was David Rutherford who brought the game back to all square. Rutherford took the puck hard to the net before sliding it around Ben Bowns for the equaliser, but with some contact made in the crease, the Devils responded angrily afterwards which saw Rutherford sent to the penalty box, as well as Devils blueliners Bryce Reddick and Andrew Hotham.
Just one goal in the second frame went in favour of the hosts as Sebastien Sylvestre found himself celebrating his 24th league goal of the year. Belfast was aggressive on the forecheck to cause the turnover, then Sylvestre found the puck on his stick in the slot and had no trouble using his wicked release on his shot to find the back of the net for a 2 – 1 Giants lead.
Belfast really tested Ben Bowns early in the final period of regulation but it was the Devils who were first on the board in the last 20 minutes. Andrew Hotham played an inch-perfect pass through the slot, all the way to the back door where Patrick Asselin was waiting to tie the game with a great backdoor tap in for a 2 – 2 scoreline, but the Giants would respond just over a minute later.
After a turnover at the blueline as the Devils looked to mount another attack, Darcy Murphy sprung loose Rutherford who again made a fantastic move to fool Bowns and tuck home his second of the evening and again the Giants had themselves the lead.
Later in the period, the Devils did manage to force overtime as Mark Richardson scored the Devils third goal of the game, and their third powerplay goal with another fantastic assist from Andrew Hotham, to make it 3 – 3 at the end of regulation and guarantee both teams a point.
After the extra five minutes, the Giants had reason to feel aggrieved. With seconds left in the extra frame, Spiros Goulakas faked a shot to clear the shooting lane and fired a lovely shot through a well place screen by Belfast out in front with Ben Bowns not knowing too much about it, it appeared that Goulakos had secured the two points for the home side.
However, while the home team celebrated, and the home founds cheered in jubilation, the men in stripes on the ice waved their arms to signal no goal which saw boos reign down from the SSE Arena. The official ruling was a man was in the crease which led to the goal being waved off, but the replay clearly shows that Jonathan Ferland was not in the crease so the goal should have stood, instead the game went to a shootout.
Joey Haddad couldn’t convert on his shot to open the shootout but Ben Bowns helped him out, not one to be fooled again by David Rutherford, Bowns calmly poked the puck away to deny the Giants.
Joey Martin was next up for the Devils by Jackson Whistle, son of former Devils coach Dave Whistle was there to deny the Devils top scorer, while at the other end Darcy Murphy made Bowns bite hard on his fake shot before firing the puck in the net, and with Whistle again coming up big to give the Giants the extra point that they shouldn’t have had to wait until overtime to get.
After a brief rest, both sides were back at in for the second meeting in two days, and again it was the Devils who found themselves on the scoreboard first, however, this time they had to wait until the second period.
Layne Ulmer capped off a fantastic shift by rounding Jackson Whistle after picking the puck up in front for the first score of the game.
Ulmer was at it again later in the period with the Devils on the powerplay. Gleason Fournier took the initial shot from the point and Ulmer showed his hand-eye to tip the puck into the top corner, leaving Jackson Whistle with no chance at all as the Devils took a 2 – 0 lead midway through the game.
Down by two but not out at all, the Giants rallied quickly to pull themselves back into the game. Just over a minute after Ulmer’s second goal, Spiro Goulakos who’s game-winning goal was wrongly disallowed the night before, was able to complete his celebration in this game as he pulled one back, finishing off a great rush up ice and a fantastic pass from Darcy Murphy to make it a 2 – 1 hockey game.
It didn’t take long in the third period for the game to be all square, Blair Riley getting on the scoresheet this time as the Giants came out swinging in the final frame, and with plenty of time left it was Riley who got the last touch on a scramble in front to make it a 2 – 2 hockey game and to send the game to overtime much like the night before.
There would be no controversy in the extra session this time around, instead just a fantastic game-winning goal to seal the victory.
Gleason Fournier picked the puck up in the zone for the Devils before his shot was deflected to the end boards but he picked the puck up again and made what looked like an awkward back hand pass out in front, with the puck coming off the ice but luckily for him, Joey Martin swatted the puck out of the air and passed to Jackson Whistle to end the game and secure a 3 – 2 Devils win, meaning both teams left their two-game series with two points for a win and an extra point for an overtime loss.
The Devils weren’t able to extend their lead at the top of the table, but coming out off all the weekend’s action they remain comfortably at the top of the EIHL standings with 63 points, with the Giants behind them on 56 points.
Cardiff will need to keep an eye on the Fife Flyers over the coming weeks. The Scottish side benefit from an easier conference and an easier run in to the end of the season, and despite being down in fourth place with 50 points right now, they could see themselves shoot right up the table with their four games in hand over the league-leading Devils, and could make this title chase even more interesting than it already is.
The Devils now look ahead to a very tough test on home ice on Wednesday night with the Sheffield Steelers coming to town.
No league points are available in this clash, but a place in the 2017/18 Challenge Cup final awaits the winner, but the Steelers carry a 6 – 2 lead from the first leg into their trip to Cardiff, so the Devils have an uphill battle ahead of them if they’re to defend their Challenge Cup success from last year.