Belfast Giants ready for 'game seven' in Challenge Cup final, says Kyle Baun
And so, the day has finally arrived.
Since booking their place in the Challenge Cup final just under a month ago, the countdown has been on to this game. A one-off shootout - a Game Seven, if you will - between the Belfast Giants and Guildford Flames.
For the Giants, of course, the significance is obvious. Not only is it the first leg of what is still a realistic dream of picking up a treble, they're aiming to defend the title they won last season when they downed the Cardiff Devils in their own building.
They return to the scene of the crime today. The Viola Arena is the venue once again for the Elite League's knockout trophy showpiece (face-off 4pm) and this year they approach the final in much a different mindset to 12 months ago.
This time they arrive in Cardiff as heavy favourites to win, rather than slight underdogs. There's pressure on this roster to deliver at least one trophy given their remarkable campaign up to this point and their heartbreak in the Continental Cup final back in January, not to mention head coach Adam Keefe going for his second trophy in as many seasons since taking over.
A rowdy band of 800 Giants fans are expected to descend on the Welsh capital for the game, all with their expectations through the roof. With 21 points between the two teams in the league standings, and with the Giants having won five of the six meetings between the teams this season, all the stats suggest this game can only go one way.
"The boys are excited to get there," admits forward Kyle Baun. "The boys from last year - I wasn't here last year - winning it was great for them and we're anxious to go back and do the same thing.
"But we know it's going to be a good game, Guildford are a good team and most of our games with them have been one-goal games, so they'll give us a good match. It should be fun, at the end of the day it's another game so you don't think about it too much, you just go out there and play."
Of those six games against the Flames, two have been decided by a single goal - one of which was in overtime at the SSE Arena - while a 4-1 win at the Guildford Spectrum back in November was settled by two late empty-netters.
Safe to say Guildford are no slouches. They started the season like a house on fire, rather appropriate given their moniker, riding the offensive output of their lethal first line of Ian Watters, John Dunbar and Kruise Reddick to success, while the powerplay was among the best in the league when quarterbacked by Calle Ackered from the point.
The first line have seen their output dip slightly - although they are still more than a handful - but the powerplay has maintained its potency at a 20.39% clip. Ackered, with 26 goals and 56 points on the season, is one of the best operators in the league on the man advantage and will be relied upon heavily by head coach Paul Dixon.
"That first line, shutting them down will be key. They have a good powerplay so discipline will be important," says Baun. "We've been shooting ourselves in the foot with defensive breakdowns and turnovers, limiting that. I think our offense will take care of itself, it's just (our defense) that has been costing us games."
In a final, eliminating those mistakes will be so important for the Giants given their problems in the defensive zone over the past few games. On Friday night, their inability to keep shots off Tyler Beskorowany was the biggest issue and meant that the game ended up being far closer than it should have been.
"I think we give ourselves situations where we should have two-, three-goal margins at the end, and when you concede a goal like that then it does become a bit more stressful. It means one bad bounce and you could have a tie game, and then anything can happen," adds Baun.
"We outplay teams, we just shoot ourselves in the foot with bad defensive breakdowns, and then all it takes is one or two bad bounces and we end up on the wrong side of (the result). It is frustrating because we're not panicking and holding our sticks to each other, we're still closing games out which is a good sign."
Should they close out today's game - provided they do go ahead at some point - then the Giants will return to Belfast with a title for the second year running. Only ten players from last year's team are still on the roster this season, however, so for many on the team this is a new experience.
With four players on the team sheet - Baun included - experiencing a knockout cup for the first time, with only play-offs back in the North American leagues to compare it to, the message is a simple one for them: treat is as if this is a Game Seven in a play-off series.
In other words: it's win or bust.
"You just want to treat it like another game, you don't want to build it up too much even though it is a Game Seven type atmosphere. We have a good group of guys with a lot of character that will be good for a one-off game," insists Baun.
"I thought we played a really good game in the Continental Cup (against Arlan), and if we play that way we'll give ourselves a great chance to win. I think the group knows that, so that'll be the main message."
Time will tell if it's enough. But for the Giants, this is an opportunity they can't pass up - and they know that.
British forward Lewis Hook is expected to return to the line-up for today's game after sitting out Friday's win over the Clan as a rehab day, likely slotting in as the left wing on the fourth line... Patrick Dwyer came through Friday's win unscathed and feeling good, posting an assist on Jordan Smotherman's opener and playing to a +2 rating, meaning he should start again today... Dwyer's inclusion means one import will have to sit out, with Jonathan Ferland expected to be the scratch.
Having started Travis Fullerton in Friday's 2-0 shutout league loss to the Devils, the Flames - who have stayed in Cardiff all weekend - are expected to bring in netminder Chris Carrozzi (2.73 GAA, .907 SAV) to start today's final.
2019 Challenge Cup final
Belfast Giants v Guildford Flames
Sunday 10th March, 4pm
Viola Arena, Cardiff
Belfast Telegraph Digital