Belfast Giants open CHL account with shock win in ill-tempered affair with Liberec
Belfast Giants 5-4 Bili Tygri Liberec
Head coach Adam Keefe warned his side they needed to cut down on their penalty troubles if they wanted to stand a chance in the Champions League.
In any other game, he might have been right. But against Bili Tygri Liberec, that most certainly wasn't the case.
The two sides shared 123 minutes of penalties between them, while the game took a nasty turn after a massive Matt Pelech hit in the second period that rubbed the Czechs the wrong way.
The newly appointed captain was leading from the front, taking no prisoners in his all-in approach, and his team responded in kind, in particular Kevin Raine, who dropped the gloves with Jan Ordos.
This was where the Giants were always going to succeed, however, in making their visitors squirm under some physical pressure, and when the Czechs bit back, they went too far.
They had already taken their response to a thundering hit on Michal Bulir by Pelech in the wrong way, and when Curtis Hamilton put the Giants ahead going into the second intermission, captain Petr Jelinek went one step further.
Hamilton struck with 20.3 seconds left in the period with the Giants already on the powerplay, the winger sniping one top shelf from the right circle, and in the aftermath Jelinek charged into Ben Lake from behind, into Liberec netminder Justin Peters.
That saw the Liberec captain kicked from the game, but by that stage the Giants had already won the mental battle. Now all they had to go was go on and win the war.
They did so and, in the process, opened their CHL account with a phenomenal shock victory over a side that is supposed to be progressing from this group with plenty to spare.
"I thought it was a great team effort for the full 60 and that's what we thought we would need and we got it. It's certainly a great feeling that we want again, so it's a great starting point and foundation for us to build from," said head coach Adam Keefe.
"To see the sacrifices out there in such a big competition, so early in the season, was very satisfying."
Defenceman Patrick Mullen was exceptional, leading the team offensively as the two-way d-man he was signed as, while Shane Owen's crucial penalty shot save from double goal-scorer Libor Hudacek in the third period proved vital.
Indeed, from the start the Giants made things awkward for Liberec and when they took the lead through Bobby Farnham after just two minutes, it really put the cat among the pigeons.
With Tomas Havlin in the box for boarding, the Giants worked their powerplay well and Farnham was on hand at the back door to tap in the feed to send the SSE Arena into raptures.
There was always going to be a reaction, though, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it came on the powerplay as Hamilton took a rather needless slash and Hudacek ripped home a one-timer from the mid-slot at 7:21.
Once again Belfast pulled ahead though, this time through Patryk Wronka as he forced the puck in off a Mullen rebound at 11:26 of the first, but the hosts were then guilty of not making the most of a 5-on-3 powerplay.
They paid for it with 3:45 of the opening stanza remaining, Ronald Knot's quick release from the right circle beating Owen low to his right.
That was only the pre-cursor to what was a mad-cap second period, that actually started with the Giants' retaking the lead through Brian Ward's first of the night, Mullen doing excellent work to gain the zone and feeding it to the centre, who ripped it home at 3:29 of the middle period.
But when Pelech smashed into Michal Bulir behind the Giants' net, it sparked a change in the heat and tempo of the game. Liberec responded angrily, with Jaroslav Vlach tussling with Farnham at the benches.
"I'm just trying to be mean and clean, stay out of the box and help the team any way I can," said Pelech.
In the middle of all of it, the Giants lost defenceman Jesse Forsberg after another huge hit behind the goal, the Canadian skating off in considerable pain, and there was a further blow when Liberec tied it again midway through the period.
It looked to be a harsh call on Farnham that sent him to the box and put the Czechs on the powerplay again but, once more, they made no mistake, Hudacek with his second of the game at 11:48 of the second with another stunning one-timer from the left circle.
Not that the game needed it, but Kevin Raine added more animosity when he dropped the gloves with Ordos, and when Jelinek capped it all off following Hamilton's go-ahead strike, the game had reached its fiery peak.
By contrast, the third period wasn't as heated but it was no less dramatic, and it looked like the Giants would start on a sour note when the Czechs nearly played out Jelinek's major for charging Lake.
But, in crucial style, with just 10 seconds remaining on the board, the hosts made their man advantage count, Ward grabbing his second of the game when he tipped in Mullen's shot at the slot to establish their first two-goal lead of the night.
It wasn't won from there, though. Owen had to come up big to deny Hudacek his hat-trick when the tricky winger won a penalty shot, going low to his right to block the Slovakian's backhanded shot.
And even after the Giants had killed off a late penalty, there was drama when Jakub Valsky got one back for Liberec with 28.9 seconds remaining, but ultimately the Giants had done enough.
"Our compete level was great. We were prepared, we sacrificed when we needed to and we came away with three points. Everyone is really proud in there and now we have to keep that momentum going," said Pelech.
Belfast Telegraph Digital