Chances are you’re going to see a bit of rotation from the Belfast Giants for their home double-header this weekend because, to be frank, these games are now precursors to the real prize on offer.
What had looked like a potential title decider against the Sheffield Steelers on Friday is now going to be an Elite League trophy parade in front of the home fans. Saturday’s game against the Coventry Blaze was quickly becoming irrelevant even before the Giants won the title, so now it definitely is.
That’s because the Giants have quickly sharpened their focus on becoming the first team since the 2012-13 Nottingham Panthers vintage to win it all. With the Elite League and Challenge Cups already secured, they have only the Play-Offs left to become only the third side to complete the Grand Slam in the EIHL era.
Great Britain centre Scott Conway, who scored the Championship-winning goal in Sunday’s 2-1 shoot-out win over the Steelers, said: “We’re going for three. We’re not stopping now.
“This is an amazing feeling and it’s definitely contagious. The guys want it all the time and we love winning here. We’re a winning team and that will never change now.”
Before the season even began, head coach Adam Keefe sent out an e-mail to his new recruits, outlining that winning just the league was not enough. Nor was adding the Challenge Cup. Only bringing all three trophies on offer back to the SSE Arena would suffice in his mind.
The players responded. In a league where every game matters, they lost back-to-back matches just twice, and they never strung together more than two losses in a row. The model of consistency, there was always that determination to never let a brief skid become a slide.
Even after they’d secured the Challenge Cup they didn’t let themselves falter, even when it looked like they would. Only three days later, the Dundee Stars were dismissed 4-1 at the SSE Arena and then the Manchester Storm were defeated 6-5 in overtime at Planet Ice Altrincham — albeit after the Giants had blown a four-goal lead.
It was that resilience and drive to be winners throughout the roster that led them on to make it at least a double with their two wins over the Steelers. Now they are four wins away from a treble.
Winger Mark Cooper, who scored in both of the wins over the Steelers, grinned: “We came in this year with high expectations and we’ve got two of three, so hopefully we can get the next one.
“We’ve had the same group all year, we haven’t brought anyone in. We’ve had some injuries but we’ve had a next man up mentality, embrace what’s in front of you, and that’s kind of been our motto all year. We’ve been doing it well.”
Having the same group of players throughout the entire season has added to the special nature of this title win, and this close-knit group has a chance to write themselves into Giants folklore over the next few weeks.
They don’t know who they will play in the quarter-finals yet, but what this team do know is that four more wins will see them lift the Play-Offs and round off the Grand Slam. The all-conquering 2013-14 team, who won the league by 33 points, couldn’t do that. Neither could the 2018-19 side, which almost had a quadruple by reaching the final of the Continental Cup but ended up settling for a double.
The 2021-22 Giants could better both of them and, accordingly, they will do everything they can to achieve it. Head coach Keefe will still want them to finish the regular season on a winning note but if he has to sit out a few guys on Friday and Saturday so they’re 100% ready to go for the Play-Offs then it is a necessary sacrifice.
Conway added: “We worked so hard all year for this moment so we’re going to enjoy this title for a bit, take a bit of time and then regroup again.
“We’re all very competitive players and being so competitive we only want to strive for the best all the time. Every last one of us is competing every shift and that definitely helps.
“Hockey is such a mental game and we’re very strong mentally. That’s why we’ve had so much success so far and that’s why I think we can have more success before the end of the season.
“We’re looking forward to the next round here. We know we’re not done yet.”
Meanwhile, Great Britain have announced that they will play Italy in two exhibition games as preparation for next month’s World Championships.
The two sides will meet in Milton Keynes on May 5, followed by a rematch in Coventry on May 10, which fall either side of back-to-back games against Denmark in Coventry and Nottingham on May 7 and 8 respectively.
Pete Russell’s side begin their World Championships, which are being held in Tampere, Finland, with a group game against Czechia on May 14.