Belfast Giants can't break Devils hoodoo as former skipper Blair Riley strikes deciding blow
Belfast Giants 2-4 Cardiff Devils
In his first Elite League game at the SSE Arena since swapping the Belfast Giants for the Cardiff Devils, you could nearly script it that it would be Blair Riley to get the clinching goal.
It wasn't the nicest goal he'll ever score, but the former Giants captain will take the deflected empty-netter with 49 seconds remaining that sealed a 4-2 win for the Devils in Belfast, the Giants' third loss to their rivals in the last 10 days.
The visitors got another top quality display from netminder Ben Bowns, the British international making 29 saves, while defenceman Sam Jardine got the game-winner 8:47 into the final period, slamming the puck in after it squirted out from a battle along the boards.
Bowns had to be big in the third period especially, the goaltender making three massive saves on Ben Lake and then twice from new man Elgin Pearce as the Giants chased the game late on, shutting down the hosts' offense when it tried to get going.
Bobby Farnham's strike, banking the puck off the back of Bowns and in, 5:47 into the final period at least ended Belfast's scoreless run against their rivals at 181:49, but the loss is no less painful as the Giants fall to 14-9-2 in the Elite League and are now four points adrift of leaders the Sheffield Steelers.
"I thought we had a pretty good game. We talk about the process we go through and I thought we checked off a lot of those things," said head coach Adam Keefe.
"We would have liked to get one on the powerplay or 6-on-5 there at the end to make it even. We made a couple mistakes tonight and they end up in the back of our net, and that's frustrating.
"I really liked our push back in the third period. That's something we can look to as a positive and something to build on."
While they weren't shut out for a fourth time in six games, another offensively starved outing for this offense won't do anything to dispel the narrative around the team that they can create offense but can't finish off their chances.
With new winger Pearce making his Belfast debut, and Rickard Palmberg his first home start, there was fresh optimism that the Giants could find something new with new bodies in the line-up, but it took too long for that to be the case.
Arguably Belfast's offensive struggles were summed up perfectly in the latter part of the second period when Brian Ward, on a shorthanded breakaway, fired straight at Bowns instead of making the goalie work, and then the hosts passed up a 1:10 long 5-on-3 powerplay at the end of the period.
By that stage Cardiff were already two ahead, Masi Marjamaki ripping a one-timer by Shane Owen - 15 saves - at 9:35 of the first for the opener, with Stephen Dixon's well-placed backhand 7:43 into the second pushing the Welsh side further ahead at 2-0.
But the chances were there for Adam Keefe's side, who created plenty, especially in trying to claw back the deficit in the third period, but simply couldn't beat Bowns that one more time to at least take the game to overtime and take a point from the clash.
"We had a good push back. That's something we haven't had in games this season. There's a lot to build off right now and we have to do that," said goal scorer Farnham.
"Obviously it does sting more when it hinges on one bounce and it could have gone our way there."
Curtis Hamilton did grab his team-leading 16th goal of the season at 15:02 of the final period to give them hope, the winger jumping off the boards and wristing home from the right circle, but it was too little, too late, and Riley was able to seal it with Owen pulled for the extra skater.
Arguably this result will hurt even more given that the Giants showed everything they've been wanting to show recently - physicality, aggression, passion and offensive creativity - but still came away on the wrong side of the scoreline.
It was led from the bench too, with the drama kicking off after just nine seconds, before any of the goals even went in, as head coach Keefe exchanged verbals with rival Andrew Lord across the plexi.
A mix-up on the gamesheet saw the Giants start with a different line-up to the one they named, and when Lord pointed that out to the officials, it sparked an angry reaction from Keefe that saw the two yelling at each other before the game restarted.
"I preferred to let the game play out on the ice and not with a technical error. That was where the frustration came from," explained Keefe.
Unfortunately he didn't get the response he wanted in terms of goals, and this is another defeat that sees the Giants fall to 3-4 in their last seven games and still looking for that clinical finisher that could have made the difference tonight.
The penalty kill at least ran at a 3-for-3 clip again, with that side of Belfast's special teams continuing to excel as it has all season, but the powerplay flopped at 0-for-3, including that 5-on-3, again not aiding an offensively challenged side in trying to grab the win.
The Giants will get the chance to try and bounce back on Sunday night when they go to the Fife Flyers (11-13-2, 24pts, 8th) (face-off 6:30pm) for their final Elite League game before Christmas.
Belfast Telegraph Digital