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Beaten Belfast Giants still in title fight, insists defiant Keefe

Belfast Giants 0 Cardiff Devils 1

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Attack mode: Belfast Giants ace Brian Ward is challenged by Sam Duggan

Attack mode: Belfast Giants ace Brian Ward is challenged by Sam Duggan

William Cherry/Presseye

Attack mode: Belfast Giants ace Brian Ward is challenged by Sam Duggan

Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe was left to take the positives from a split weekend with title rivals the Cardiff Devils that marks another setback in their Elite League title defence.

Despite closing the gap to the Sheffield Steelers at the top of the standings to seven points, the Giants passed up a glorious opportunity to propel themselves into the thick of the title race after splitting 1-0 results with the Devils at the SSE Arena.

Both games were decided by a powerplay goal, with Elgin Pearce's strike earning the Giants their win on Saturday and Joey Haddad's goal doing the same for Cardiff in yesterday's clash.

Netminder Shane Owen had an excellent weekend, backing up his 19-save shut-out in the first game with another 19 stops in yesterday's loss to give the Giants every chance of walking away with what would have been a vital four-point weekend.

Instead, it's a win and a defeat, which moves the Giants to 24-15-2 on the season and keeps them two points behind the Devils in the standings, with the Welsh side having two games in hand.

However, head coach Keefe was instead trying to look at the upside of the weekend, which saw the sides play two excellent games of hockey, even if they were low scoring.

"This is play-off hockey, it's not easy to score. You could say the same for Cardiff. One powerplay goal apiece settles the weekend. No five-on-five goals," reflected Keefe on the games as a whole.

"We knew that would be the battle going into (yesterday's) game, trying to score five-on-five. We didn't do that, and to give up that powerplay goal puts us behind and leaves us chasing the game.

"It's a bit of a heartbreaker for everyone involved, but we need to take the positives. We've proven that, when it comes down to it, we're ready for play-off hockey, that we can play it.

"We need to bring that level of engagement and consistency for the rest of the season."

There was controversy surrounding Haddad's winner for the Devils, with netminder Owen outraged at the referees after they turned down his appeals for interference from Matthew Myers in the build-up to the goal.

The replays showed that the British centre definitely clipped Owen as he skated across the crease, but the referees determined it wasn't enough to warrant washing the goal out.

That was backed up by the Elite League, who put out a statement on Twitter saying the officials made the right call, but Keefe wasn't convinced, even though he begrudgingly accepted the decision as it stood.

"Looks to me like the player skates purposefully into Shane Owen's stick, which, if you're a goaltender holding your stick, it's going to spin you. It spun him and that takes him out of his position. It was untimely because the pass went the opposite direction to where he was spun," fumed Keefe.

"I understand the Elite League have put out a release saying it was the right call. If it was the right call, it was the right call, but it certainly looked questionable to me on the footage I saw.

"But at the end of the day, you have to score a goal to win a hockey game anyway. We didn't do that, so we lose."

The players - besides internationals Ben Lake and Paul Swindlehurst - will take a week off now as GB play their Olympic qualifiers in Nottingham next weekend, before reconvening for the run-in to the end of the season, with the Giants knowing they need to be near-perfect in order to defend their crown.

Keefe refused to agree that the Giants' title hopes have taken a hit with the split weekend, however, and believes they are still right in the thick of things going into the final stages of the campaign.

"(Our chances) are the exact same as they were before the weekend. Nothing changes," argued the head coach.

"We're chasing Cardiff, we're a way back against them. Obviously we still have a game left against them and we have a lot of hockey still to be played here.

"We were this far or further back this time last year, the only difference is that it's a four-horse race this time and not a two-horse race.

"We're still in this. We just have to keep going and worry about our own game and find consistency, see where we end up at the end of the year."

Belfast Telegraph