Belfast Giants all but book final spot after rout
Belfast Giants 7 Cardiff Devils 1: The Belfast Giants have one foot in the Challenge Cup final after they steamrollered the Cardiff Devils yet again.
Just over two weeks after beating the Welsh side 7-2 and 11-4 in the space of 24 hours, the Giants were at it again.
This time they racked up another seven goals at the Odyssey and with Cardiff managing only one in reply, the chances of the scoreline being overturned in next week's return meeting are slim.
Evan Cheverie and Kevin Saurette put the Giants ahead in the first period and after Andrew Lord pulled one back, Colin Shields restored the two-goal advantage.
The Giants then moved clear in the tie with a Craig Peacock double and further goals from Dustin Whitecotton and Shields in the third period.
When Cardiff undertake their mission impossible in the second leg next Wednesday night, a man familiar to Giants fans will be behind the Cardiff bench.
Just before last night's match, the Devils announced that Dave Whistle will take over the reigns on a temporary basis while their current coach Brent Pope undertakes his media responsibilities at the Winter Olympics in Russia.
Whistle was the Giants first ever coach when the team began life in 2000. He led the Giants to Superleague glory in 2002 and then won the Play-offs a year later before leaving for Germany.
He had been keen to return to Belfast last year after Doug Christiansen left for Sheffield, but Paul Adey beat him to the post.
Now he will try to stop the Giants from taking their place in the final against either Sheffield or holders Nottingham.
The Giants flew out of the blocks and were in front with just 49 seconds on the clock.
Robby Sandrock linked up with Saurette and Cheverie swept the puck past Cardiff goaltender Kamil Kosowski.
The great start continued when the Giants scored their second on a powerplay at 3:08.
Tomas Kurka had been punished for a hooking offence and after Cheverie and Chris Higgins had worked the opening Saurette struck for the 24th time this season.
Cardiff were stunned and five minutes later, in an attempt to swing the momentum, Andrew Lord dropped the gloves with Giants captain Adam Keefe.
Lord had a more telling impact on the game a full 20 minutes later when he gave the Devils a foothold in the game, despite them playing a man down.
Ziga Svete was serving a hooking penalty when Mark Smith and Max Birbraer provided the ammunition for Lord to score short-handed at 27:43 and cut the lead in half.
The Giants ended the second period two goals to the good though, thanks to record goalscorer Shields.
Whitecotton and Jeffrey Szwez carved out the opportunity and Shields finished with his usual aplomb.
The Giants then took a major step into the final when they scored four more goals in the third period.
They opened up a three-goal lead early in the period with a short-handed goal of their own.
David Phillips had been deemed guilty of a boarding offence and after a minute of soaking up the Cardiff pressure Darryl Lloyd stole the puck for the Giants and broke to the other end.
He was joined by Peacock and when the pass found the Englishman he slotted it beyond Kosowski's reach.
Peacock then showed his versatility when he scored his second of the night, this time on a powerplay.
Birbraer was deemed to have elbowed a Giants player, but he was hardly in his seat in the penalty box when Peacock turned Saurette's pass into the net with just 11 seconds of the powerplay gone.
Had it ended that way then Cardiff would have felt that they were at least still in the tie, but there was more to come from the Giants.
With just 91 seconds left Whitecotton scored unassisted, but still that wasn't it.
Sixteen seconds from the end, Higgins and Cheverie linked up and Shields finished to make it 7-1 and all but secure a fourth Challenge Cup final appearance in the last six years.