The first major trophy of the EIHL season is up for grabs this Sunday as the Cardiff Devils take on the Belfast Giants for the Challenge Cup at Ice Arena Wales.
For the second year in a row, the home of the Devils is the host of the final, and for the fourth year running the Devils can add to their trophy cabinet which until 2014 was gathering dust.
In 2014 the Devils defeated the Sheffield Steelers to get their first trophy since 2007 but they weren’t able to repeat a year later when they were ousted by the Nottingham Panthers who took their record 8th Challenge Cup trophy. Last year however the Devils made their third straight appearance and on home ice they defeated the Steelers once again, but this time they’ll have the Belfast Giants to compete with who are searching for their first Challenge Cup since 2009.
Belfast haven’t had the greatest luck in the tournament, winning once out of four finals appearances, finishing as runners up to the Nottingham Panthers in 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2013/14. Despite some disappointment in the Challenge Cup, Belfast have been one of the leagues most consistent performers year after year, winning the league title in 2011-12 and 2013-14, finishing second in 04/05, 06/07, 09/10, 12/13 and 16/17.
The Giants fared better in their group stage at the start of the year. In six games they managed four wins and picked up an extra point in a shootout loss to the Dundee Stars to start their campaign before games against the Fife Flyers and Edinburgh Capitals.
Cardiff on the other hand, despite a strong start with three straight wins, followed that up with three losses to finish third in a group that featured the Guildford Flames, Milton Keynes Lightning and Coventry Blaze.
In their quarter-final matchups both teams escaped the first leg tied at 3 against their opponents, however the Giants demolished Fife in the second leg with a huge 7 – 0 win that saw seven different scorers while Cardiff made up for a lacklustre first leg performance by defeating Guildford 6 – 2 to advance to the semis.
Belfast never looked in danger in their semi-final meeting with the Panthers, taking a 5 – 1 lead out of the first leg and despite a closer second leg that ended with a 7 – 6 win for the side from Northern Ireland they eased their way to the finals.
The Devils on the other hand looked almost out of it after an embarrassing first leg loss to the Sheffield Steelers, but a much more inspired second leg saw the Devils overturn a 6 – 2 deficit and take a 7 – 1 win to seal their place in their fourth straight final.
Now with the final just days away, arguably the best teams in the league will battle out for the first major trophy of the year.
Even Devils General Manger Todd Kelman has been singing the praises of the Giants (Who he was a player for between 2000-2008 as well as GM from 2007-2014) by saying “All season long, I feel we’ve been the two best teams, although Manchester have pushed ahead of the Giants, but from Christmas onwards, it’s seemed like a real push for the Conference between us.
“A lot of people assume you want the worst for your old club after you leave them, but I’m of the position that if we don’t win the league, then I’d want Belfast to win it above anyone else.”
While the teams have split the season series with three wins a piece in six meetings, the goaltenders could play a huge factor in determining this next 60 minutes and who skates away with the trophy.
Belfast will turn to 22-year old Jackson Whistle to defend the cage in Ice Arena Wales this weekend, with the Canadian born goaltender really proving his potential in his second year in the EIHL.
Whistle, who is the son of former Devils and Giants head coach Dave Whistle, served mostly as a backup last year to long time Giant Stephen Murphy, however with Murphy out injured for the majority of this season Whistle has really become one of the leading goalies in the league this year.
While his league stats aren’t the best compared to some others in the league, in the Challenge Cup he has been incredible, posting a 1.69 goals against average and allowing just 12 goals in 7 games.
It’s not just the superb goaltending of Whistle that has got the Giants to this point, they also have some of the leagues best players, especially when you look at their stats in the Challenge Cup.
24-year-old Sebastien Sylvestre has been dynamite in his first year in the EIHL, as has teammate Brendan Connolly who both lead the competition with 16 points, with Sylvestre leading in goals with 8 and Connolly tied with Devils forward Joey Martin with 11 assists.
Defensively the Giants have some big bodies to punish the Devils forwards, but while the likes of Spiro Goulakos and Ryan Martinelli are also able to contribute offensively, especially the former. While Goulakos may not be everyone’s favourite player his 44 points in 39 games speak volumes of his importance in all areas of the ice, and he’ll certainly be a potential difference maker come Sunday.
With the Devils, they’ll have the reliable Joey Martin as their primary offensive target, with the forward who’s in his fourth year with Cardiff recently passing the 100-goal plateau for the club. Martin who’s been named the EIHL Forward of the Year twice in 2015/16 and 2016/17 leads a whole cast of gifted offensive talents on the Devils roster that feature the likes of Sean Bentivoglio, Joey Haddad and Matt Pope.
Between the pipes for the Devils will once again be Ben Bowns who’s in his fourth year with the club is once again the best British goaltender in the league but also one of the best goaltenders regardless of nationality.
Tickets didn’t take long to sell out for this meeting, but it will be available live on IceTime TV for those who want to catch this can’t miss event.
After this weekends Cup final matchup between the Giants and Devils, they won’t be done going to battle there with two further fixtures left in league action in March, and who knows what will happen when the playoffs come around.
Challenge Cup stats
Sebastien Sylvestre (Belfast) – 16
Brendan Connolly (Belfast) – 16
Joey Martin (Cardiff) – 14
Blair Riley (Belfast) – 14
Denny Kearney (Milton Keynes) – 14
Sebastien Sylvestre (Belfast) – 8
Mark Derlago (Nottingham) – 7
Jonathan Ferland (Belfast) – 7
Ian Watters (Belfast) – 7
Jordan Pietrus (Coventry) – 7
Brendan Connolly (Belfast) – 11
Joey Martin (Cardiff) – 11
Blair Riley (Belfast) – 10
Jonas Westerling (Sheffield) – 9
Francis Verreault-Paul (Milton Keynes) – 9
Jackson Whistle (Belfast) – .939%
Miika Wiikman (Milton Keynes) – .928%
Ervins Mustukovs (Sheffield) – .914%
Michael Garnett (Nottingham) – .910%
Ben Bowns (Cardiff) – .899%
Goals Against Average
Jackson Whistle (Belfast) – 1.69
Michael Garnett (Nottingham) – 2.51
Ervins Mustukovs (Sheffield) – 2.78
Miika Wiikamn (Milton Keynes) – 2.84
Ben Bowns (Cardiff) – 2.98