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Belfast Giants' strength lies in team unity, insists captain Blair Riley

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The Belfast Giants are Elite League champions (William Cherry/Presseye)

The Belfast Giants are Elite League champions (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

The Belfast Giants are Elite League champions (William Cherry/Presseye)

It's Tuesday morning skate at the Dundonald Ice Bowl and the Belfast Giants are in good form.

David Rutherford aims a few verbal jabs at Kendall McFaull during a water break which are returned with interest by the grinning defenceman.

When the action resumes, a brilliant save during powerplay drills from Stephen Murphy is roared on by all those on the ice, with fellow netminder Tyler Beskorowany leading the cheers by thumping the ice with his stick.

As the day's training winds to a close, Murphy and Andrew Dickson head to the opposite end of the ice and take turns shooting at the crossbar from between the face-off circles. Dickson rings the iron first and wheels away with his arms aloft in celebration.

It's all serious yet at the same time light-hearted, as you would expect after pulling level with the Cardiff Devils at the top of the Elite League table.

But this isn't solely down to the weekend's double-header victory over Cardiff. This is how it always is for the Giants - a tight group that are now perfectly placed for a charge at their first Elite League title since 2014.

"It's a fun group," says captain Blair Riley. "We've gone through some stretches where we've had some tough games and negativity sets in, and that's usually when we aren't playing our best.

"This team seems to find the right balance, it's a really good group with a good mix of veterans and young guys who know when to buckle down and get to work. Practice is the time to have fun, you can enjoy yourselves and still get better.

"It's a fun game to play and it makes it that much better when you're winning and things are exciting, especially at this time of year. You get through the dog days to get to these games when everything matters.

"It's a fun time of year, and if you can't enjoy it then maybe you shouldn't be playing!"

The recruitment helped with chemistry. By targeting players who would already have pre-established connections in Belfast, head coach Adam Keefe created a tight-knit group before the season even began.

Josh Roach and McFaull were signed from the University of Saskatchewan together, giving the Giants an already established defensive pairing, and when Roach found chemistry with Curtis Leonard, another bond was formed. Paul Swindlehurst and Lewis Hook were familiar faces from Great Britain training camps. Kyle Baun and Darcy Murphy were team-mates at Colgate.

Even the mid-season acquisitions had links in Belfast, winger Chris Higgins rejoining after a year away from the team and he was quickly followed to the SSE Arena by his childhood friend Jordan Smotherman.

Not only that, but the balance is right too. In Jim Vandermeer, Jonathan Ferland and Patrick Dwyer, the Giants have 893 games of NHL experience under their belts, while the likes of Hook and Swindlehurst provide the young, exciting core of the team.

"It's been a blast," says Riley of being captain this season. "It's not a hard team to lead because you have so many veterans, you have so many guys doing the right thing, so it's not hard and I'm sure Keefer will tell you that it's not a hard group to coach.

"There's a complete buy-in from everyone, whether you're first line, fourth line, guys have had to sit out games this season that they thought maybe they should be playing in, but it's all about the team and that's why you see us having success."

A Challenge Cup final against the Guildford Flames awaits on March 10. With 11 games of the season remaining, the Giants trail the Devils in the standings by half a game as the Welsh side have a game in hand still to play. Add in the play-offs and the Giants are still in the running for three trophies.

Six weeks ago there was no guarantee of any of them as they trailed Cardiff by 11 points at the top of the Elite League and a couple of weeks later they dropped the first leg of their Challenge Cup semi-final in Glasgow, 2-1 to the Clan.

But this roster doesn't relent. In five weeks they closed the gap to the Devils to three points and overturned that deficit to Glasgow to reach the final against Guildford, and at the weekend they completed the comeback to go top for the first time since early January by doubling up on the Devils.

The momentum is wholly behind the Giants, who go to the Fife Flyers tomorrow night (face-off 7.30pm, live on FreeSports) knowing that a win there could send them two points clear if the Devils slip up at home to the Glasgow Clan at the same time.

"Knowing that the title race is alive and well gives you so much more to play for. If we'd lost those two games, for all intents and purposes it's already wrapped up, there's just not enough games to recover in," admits Riley.

"We still have a lot to do, we haven't accomplished anything yet and that's the mindset going into this week and these games. Cardiff still has a game in hand so we have to win our games and hope we get a little bit of help. We've put ourselves in a great position, especially given where we were six weeks ago, and we want to keep pushing now.

"We're expecting a tough game, it's a tough building to play in, it's a small ice sheet and their fans are loud. Fife are right in the play-off push so every game is important, every team we'll play down the stretch will be playing for their lives so both us and Cardiff are going to get everyone's toughest game because it's life and death for them too.

"That makes it exciting too, you can't afford to take your foot off the gas and that's what you want - it makes the league exciting right to the end.

"To be in the mix for all three trophies at this stage is pretty special."

Belfast Telegraph