Belfast Giants show battling qualities to down Guildford Flames in extras
Belfast Giants 3-2 Guildford Flames (OT)
On another night, this game could have easily gone another way, but somehow the Belfast Giants continue to find ways to win.
Chris Higgins popped up with 1:48 gone in overtime to hand the Belfast Giants a gritty 3-2 win over the Guildford Flames at the SSE Arena that keeps their win streak alive at seven and their momentum alive.
Perhaps most importantly, Adam Keefe got the improved defensive display he was looking for, with the Giants keeping the Flames relatively quiet for the opening two periods before the third period sparked into life.
In recent weeks the Giants made a habit of going ahead before giving away big leads, but this time they had to dig deep in the third period to come from behind twice thanks to goals from Blair Riley and Colin Shields on the powerplay, which went 2-5 on the night.
Winger Higgins had a big game, scoring the game winner and adding helpers on the Giants' other two goals, while Shields too was influential with his strike with 2:10 remaining taking the tie to extra innings where the hosts prevailed.
"The line before us did a great job with puck possession, which is so important three-on-three," said Higgins. "We changed out and regrouped, Vandy gave it up to Johner who gave it to me and I just put it on net and it went in.
"It's been a wild couple of games recently, trading plenty of goals, but good teams find ways to win and that's what we did tonight.
"We didn't come out the best in the second period but Keefer regrouped the guys and we went out and played hard, kept things pretty simple and we came out with a big win."
Belfast are now 6-1-0 in their last seven in all competitions thanks to Higgins' game winner, and their victory cuts the Cardiff Devils' lead at the top of the table to just a point, albeit having played a game more.
But most pleasing for Keefe will be the rearguard effort, which had been questioned over their recent stretch having conceded 27 goals in their last eight, but on this occasion they looked more composed.
"When I was away the guys spoke about d-zone coverage and cleaning it up," said Keefe. "It really comes down to work ethic and eliminating options on the ice. We can still be better but I thought we made big strides tonight."
Belfast's improved defence set the tone early with a big penalty kill, restricting the Flames to just two shots on their only powerplay when Curtis Leonard took a roughing call after just 2:41, while their own powerplay was negated by the Flames killers when Brett Ferguson sat for slashing after 15:43.
Tyler Beskorowany was back to his lights out best, turning away 25 of the 27 shots he faced, however the second period started with a couple of misplays behind his own net, with Jim Vandermeer bailing out his netminder with a big block from Ben Davies on an empty net shot.
At the other end, the Giants couldn't believe they didn't open the scoring early in the third as Darcy Murphy reacted quickest to a rebound only for Chris Carozzi - who had 23 saves on 26 shots - to thrust out his stick and deflect onto the iron and away.
That allowed Guildford to take advantage of Kevin Raine's defensive turnover, the d-man misplaying the puck off the half-boards to let John Dunbar in on Beskorowany, applying the shortside finish at 4:30 of the third.
After going a rather meagre 0-3 in the first two periods, it was the Giants' powerplay that brought them level when it roared into life after Guildford took a needless too many men call.
Higgins delivered the pass to Riley in the right circle as the visitors scrambled to cover and Shields applied the screen out front, which allowed the shot to strike the unseen Carozzi and ricochet into the roof of the net at 8:41 of the final stanza.
Flames forward Ben Davies looked to have stolen the win with 5:41 remaining when he swept onto a rebound that Beskorowany couldn't corral, Evan Janssen with the initial shot and Davies following it in to slide it into the gaping cage.
But the hosts refused to lie down, and it was new man Jordan Smotherman who laid the puck on a plate for Shields to level, the winger dishing the puck into the slot for the Elite League's all-time leading scorer to rip home with just 2:10 to go.
That left Higgins to snatch the game-winner in overtime, coming off the left boards and driving a shot low past Carozzi to steal the two points on offer.
"The second period we've seemed to lull over the last couple of weeks for whatever reason, but we managed to keep it a close game," said goal scorer Shields.
"It showed massive character from us to come from behind to take it to overtime and then for Higgy to get that nice goal to win it for us."
The two sides will do it all over again tomorrow when they play the second game of their double-header at the SSE Arena (face-off 7pm).
Belfast Telegraph Digital