All you need to know about Belfast Giants' clash with Sheffield Steelers
The Belfast Giants meet Erhardt Conference rivals the Sheffield Steelers at the SSE Arena on Saturday night as they look to back up last weekend’s four point haul in a massive Elite League clash.
It's the first game of a home-home series with the Steelers with the two sides meeting at the Sheffield Arena again on Sunday evening.
After a mixed start to the season, the Giants got their first four-point weekend last time out as the picked up back to back wins over the Dundee Stars and Edinburgh Capitals in the Challenge Cup.
However, this will be the first big test of the season and of Adam Keefe’s tenure as head coach as they welcome the defending play-off champions to Belfast.
Sheffield have started the season strongly, with a 6-0-1 record, scoring 30 goals in their opening seven games and conceding 15. They top both the Elite League table and their Challenge Cup group.
Last time they met
Belfast Giants 0-2 Sheffield Steelers (Elite League Play-Off Semi-Final, National Ice Arena, 8/4/17)
The Giants won't remember their last game with Sheffield too fondly as it was the game that ended their play-off push last season in Nottingham.
The Steelers, backed by a strong rearguard performance from goaltender Ervins Mustukovs, got the win thanks to a first period goal from Guillaume Desbiens before Levi Nelson added an empty netter to seal victory with 25 seconds to go.
For the Giants, Adam Keefe is likely to turn to Jackson Whistle (2-0-1, 3.24, .889), who is coming off the back of a win over the Dundee Stars last Saturday, making 26 saves off 30 shots. The 22-year old will make his fourth start of the season and his third at the SSE Arena.
Facing him will be Sheffield’s 33-year old Latvian netminder Ervins Mustukovs (4-0-1, 3.09, .905) who is widely regarded as one of the best in the league and will make his sixth start of the year. Mustukovs made 15 saves on 17 shots against Dundee in midweek, picking up the win before being pulled in the third period.
Two to watch
After an amazing couple of games last weekend, scoring four goals and adding two assists against Dundee and Edinburgh, Sébastien Sylvestre will be hoping to prove to the Giants fans that's what he can produce on a regular basis. Not afraid to charge the net and possessing strong stick-handling skills, Sylvestre has already been compared to former Belfast favourite Chris Higgins - high praise indeed.
Colton Fretter is another man in top form and will be the danger man for the visitors. He too is coming off a very impressive week with four goals and an assist, including two goals against Dundee in midweek. A proven goalscorer on the powerplay, he's somebody the Giants will have to keep an eye on during their penalty kill.
Keys to victory
1. Score early: If Mustukovs is able to get a foothold in the game during the first period then he usually proves very difficult to beat. Going in at the first intermission on the scoreboard is vital.
2. Defensive focus: Belfast have been scoring goals for fun, but have also been conceding a lot too. So far the Giants have conceded 4.2 goals a game on average, and that won't do it against a side as good as Sheffield.
3. Keep the powerplay rolling: Adam Keefe has put a lot of focus on the special teams, and as a result the Giants are 9-for-20 (45%) on the powerplay this season. Taking those opportunities can win tight games.
What they said
Belfast Giants forward Colin Shields
“Sheffield Steelers will give us a test this weekend, no question and it’s still early in the season. Any points you play for even this early are important, especially against the top teams.
“We did well against the Steelers and Nottingham last year so we want to make our mark in those sorts of games this time.
“They’ve kept a few guys and plugged the gaps left by those who’ve gone. Mustukovs always did well against us so we’ll look to get to him early and try and tightening up at the back.”
Belfast are reporting a clean bill of health, with local man Stephen Eccles likely to dress for the game again as he looks to cement a place on the roster and improve his ice time.
Steelers head coach Paul Thompson is waiting for late fitness tests on influential defenseman Zack Fitzgerald and forward Matt Marquardt, neither of whom skated in Thursday’s practice, however Thompson has said he is confident both will ice on Saturday.
How can I be there?
Tickets are still available from the SSE Arena Box Office, which you can call on 028 9073 9074, or through Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.ie.
Belfast Telegraph Digital