Andrew Hotham’s last minute goal handed the Cardiff Devils the 2018 Elite League title as they defeated the Belfast Giants 3-2 at the SSE Arena in a pulsating clash.
Hotham’s strike just 20 seconds from the final buzzer means the visitors can’t be caught at the top of the league and it gave them revenge for the Giants winning the Challenge Cup in Cardiff two weeks ago.
With regular starter Jackson Whistle our injured, there was a rare start for Giants backup Chris Truehl, while British goaltender Ben Bowns was between the pipes for Cardiff.
The hosts were fortunate they didn’t fall behind after a few seconds when a fantastic reverse pass from Andrew Hotham found Patrick Asselin in plenty of space, only for the Devils man to rattle the pipes with a wrister from the left circle.
Having weathered that initial storm, Belfast began launching assaults of their own on Bowns at the other end, and the Cardiff defensive corps had to throw their bodies on the line to deny both Sébastien Sylvestre and Steve Saviano in quick succession.
Eventually the pressure paid and the Giants took the lead at 13.22, Saviano again involved as he turned the puck over in the defensive zone and his pass to Colin Shields allowed the forward to find the twine low past Bowns.
The lead lasted just 41 seconds as Cardiff struck back immediately, almost in identical fashion, as Joey Martin won the turnover and then played a perfect one-two with Matt Pope to level the scores at 14.03.
Still Belfast continued to dominate proceedings, albeit without any significant chances towards the end of the first period, but they laid siege to Bowns’ net to begin the second and both Saviano and Cole Jarrett had looks at goal.
But despite their dominance, it was Cardiff who went ahead at 33.17, Pope taking the puck to the crease and roofing it past Truehl on the backhand, however Adam Keefe on the Giants’ bench was adamant they should have had a tripping call on Darcy Murphy earlier in the play.
That cranked up the tension in the arena considerably, particularly in the stands, and it all spilled over on the ice when Pope and Sylvestre clashed behind the net after the latter had a shot saved by Bowns, both given two minutes to cool off in the penalty box.
And it was with Sylvestre off the ice that Belfast equalised at 37.13 to send the sides into the second intermission level, David Rutherford faking a shot in the slot and feeding Spiro Goulakos on the angle and his slapshot cannoned in off the unfortunate Bowns.
Having seen their lead cut by the hosts, Cardiff came out with a renewed focus in the third period and they dictated the game in the early stages of the final period, with Truehl denying Matthew Myers and Joey Haddad seeing a shot rebound off the pipes.
Having soaked up the early pressure from the Devils, the Giants did come back with chances of their own, Saviano seeing a wraparound well blocked by Bowns and Martinelli’s deflected shot was also kept out by the goaltender.
Arguably Cardiff should have had the game won before they did, Truehl blanking Martin right at the crease after a kind bounce off the boards before Haddad saw a second shot come back off the frame of the goal.
But the winning goal came and it broke the hearts of the home crowd, Andrew Hotham skating unopposed into the offensive zone and placing a well placed shot past Truehl’s glove side at 59:40, starting the celebrations on the away bench.