The Cardiff Devils have failed to retain the Challenge Cup as the Belfast Giants upset the defending champions with a 6 – 3 victory.
Despite being the favourites going into Sunday nights final that took place in Ice Arena Wales, the Devils weren’t able to get past a hungry Giants side who played a fantastic 40 minutes of hockey after a shaky first period.
Cardiff did take an early lead through veteran forward Layne Ulmer, who has been possibly the sides best player since after Christmas, but the Giants matched the Devils physically and blanked them for the rest of the period.
The physical dominance of Giants defenceman Ryan Martinelli really looked to be influential in the first for the side from Northern Ireland. On more than one occasion the 31-year-old Canadian showed why he’s known for his intimidating style of play, and it showed as as the period carried out the Devils forwards looked to be thinking twice about carrying the puck on his defensive side.
Coming out for the second period the Giants really looked to have found their rhythm in the game. Less than five minutes into the period Brandon Benedict, a third-year man for the team levelled the score, but the Devils did manage to regain it shortly after as Gleason Fournier took advantage of the Giants penalty kill collapsing and firing past Jackson Whistle for a 2 – 1 lead.
While the goal should have been the spark to carry Cardiff to their Cup defence , it looked to light a fire underneath the Giants who didn’t look back after the goal.
The first man to respond was David Rutherford who since rejoining the Giants midway through the year has shown that despite missing time to start the year without a club, he’s not missed a step with an impressive run of games.
Jonathan Ferland then gave the Giants their first lead of the night with a bad angle shot that floated past Ben Bowns for a 3 – 2 Giants lead to end two periods of play.
With the buzzer going to sound the end of the second frame, Rutherford looked to finish a late hit on Devils captain Jake Morissette which caused a bit of a gathering, but Rutherford escaped punishment and in fact it was Devils forward Sean Bentivoglio the only one to receive a penalty, causing the Devils to play a man down to start the important final period.
A former Devil came back to haunt his former employer as Matt Towe tipped a shot past Bowns to extend the Giants lead and edge them closer to their first Challenge Cup win since 2009.
Darcy Murphy put an extra nail in the coffin midway through the period but the Devils certainly didn’t think they were out of it just yet.
With five minutes to go, and a penalty called against the Giants, Andrew Lord pulled Bowns in favour of an extra attacker, and the reliable Jake Morissette pulled one back for the defending champions, but an empty net goal from Ferland for his second of the night, assisted by Steve Saviano for his fourth assist of the night, sealed the deal, with Belfast winning 6 – 3 and the Cup heading across to Northen Ireland for the first time in nearly a decade.
The win marks the first trophy for rookie head coach Adam Keefe, who after spending many years as the Giants most influential player on and off the puck, is proving his worth as already a fantastic coach at 33-years-old.
Keefe and his team head back across the Irish Sea as deserved winners and will still have more chances to upset the Devils as the 2017/18 EIHL season starts drawing to a close.
The rookie coach payed his respects to the hundreds of Giants fans who had to fight their way to South Wales after the recent weather issues by saying “Unbelievable shoutout to the teal arm who came here through blizzards, some of them left 36 hours ago.”
Many Giants fans faced flight cancellations and even having Devils fans offer to pick them up from airports to ensure they were able to see their team win their first trophy since winning winning the league title in 2013-14.
Jackson Whistle continued his impressive coming out year as the new starting goalie for Belfast. The youngster born in Canada, the son of former Giants and Devils coach Dave Whistle joined the team last year but saw limited ice time, and now in his first year starting for the team he was crucial in denying the Devils the opportunity to defend one of their three trophies they earned last year.
The Devils will look to view this as just a setback with a lot more hockey still to play. Defensively they had gaps that were exploited by Belfast who were just more clinical on the night.
Belfast, after they finish their celebrations will look to press on with their season despite sitting a bit too far behind the table topping Cardiff Devils who look as though it’s their league to lose at this point.
Both sides have played 48 games and are separated by 13 points in the standings, with just the Manchester Storm in between the two sides.
Cardiff are back in action on Saturday night as they take on the Edinburgh Capitals on home ice, with Belfast taking on the Braehead Clan the same night on home ice.