Coventry Blaze 0 Belfast Giants 2: Garrett Zemlak delivered an amazing encore to his debut shut-out by recording another at the end of a weekend when the Belfast Giants blew the Elite League title race wide open.
Five days after blanking the Fife Flyers in his Odyssey bow, the goaltender — who was only signed last week — put up the shutters once again to keep Coventry Blaze at bay, with the Giants recording a 2-0 win in the SkyDome.
Greg Stewart’s second period goal effectively won the game for the Giants, with Adam Keefe’s last-minute empty netter only serving to ensure that there would be no dramatic conclusion to the game.
After Saturday night’s thrilling 4-3 win over the top-of-the-table Nottingham Panthers, the Giants are now just two points adrift and with each team having 17 games left to play things are really hotting up in the title tussle.
Less than a week ago Zemlak was still a Braehead Clan player, but now he is already edging towards hero status with the Belfast Giants fans.
Stephen Murphy’s injury threatened to derail the team’s quest to retain the title, but Zemlak has proved to be more than just an able deputy.
“We have been through this before in the last two seasons — coming up just short in the first one before we got the job done last year — and right now we are where we want to be,” said coach Doug Christiansen.
“We are right in there in the title race and I am happy about that.
“Now we have to keep going and keep doing the things we are good at if we are to achieve our goals.
“Garrett Zemlak has give us a spark. He has played well and made huge stops in all three games that he has played for us.
“We have made some adjustments, out team defence has been better, but take nothing away from him, he has been a big part of the three wins that we’ve had since he came into the team.”
Stewart lit up the game after a tight first period when he stole the puck in his own zone and skated through on his own before shooting past Coventry goaltender Peter Hirsch to open the scoring at 25:12.
Coventry then had Brad Leeb sent to the penalty box after he put in a hit on Craig Peacock, which referee Mike Hicks deemed as a check to the head.
That put the Giants on a powerplay, with Robby Sandrock and Stewart both testing Hirsch to the maximum.
There was, however, no repeat of the fighting that has dominated recent Giants v Blaze meetings — indeed the Giants only served 10 minutes of penalties all night.
That meant the players were able to save energy and that had an impact on keeping Coventry scoreless before Keefe collected Matt Towe’s pass and fired the puck into the empty net as Coventry gambled in the search of an equaliser.
“The players know what we have to do now if we are to keep hold of our title,” said Christiansen.
“It wasn’t easy going into Coventry after we’d put so much into the game against Nottingham on Saturday night, but we ground out the win and that’s what we’re going to have to do between now and the end of the season.
“Our big players delivered when we needed them to as well.
“Greg Stewart is a guy that creates big problems for opposition defencemen and he can open up the play in tight games.
“He forced the mistake for the goal and finished it very well — and ultimately that’s what won us the game.”