Sheffield Steelers 1 Belfast Giants 2 (after shoot-out)
As he faced down Rok Stojanovic for a second time in the shoot-out to decide the Premier Sports Elite League title race, Belfast Giants centre Scott Conway knew this time he wasn’t going to miss.
He’d already been denied by the Sheffield Steelers goaltender once, not quite getting his move right. But he saw enough that, when head coach Adam Keefe asked for shooters in sudden death, the GB international was keen to put his hand up.
Score, and the title was the Giants’. Miss, and Sheffield were still in with a chance.
“The goalie came out far the first time and I saw the five-hole that time, but I’d already set my mind to the move and I didn’t quite pull it off, I didn’t bait him enough,” admitted Conway.
“Keefer looked at me on the bench and there was no doubt on the second one.”
Indeed there wasn’t. Conway skated wide left, drove back into the middle and placed the puck between the pads of Stojanovic for a 2-1 win and the goal that clinched the title for the Giants.
“That’s something I’ll never forget for sure,” he added.
The Giants are now four points ahead and the Steelers could draw level with them if they win their remaining two games and Belfast lose theirs, but the Giants are guaranteed to win the tie-breaker — regulation wins — so the race is over.
It was about as dramatic a clinching game as the Giants could have hoped for, too. After a defensive masterclass in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Steelers in game one of their double-header at the Utilita Arena, they knew one more win would do it, but they had hoped they would not need a shoot-out to do so.
Fortunately, they got another stellar defensive display, led from the back by netminder Tyler Beskorowany, who turned away 24 shots in regulation and was unbeaten in the shoot-out, but his crowning moment came in the dying stages of the first period when he somehow stuck out his paddle and denied Martin Latal what looked like an empty-net rebound at the back door.
“It was a desperation save,” said the goaltender modestly. “Honestly, under the circumstances, it was probably the best save of my career.”
The men in front of him were immense, too. Sam Ruopp came up with a timely block with just 2:14 left and the score tied 1-1, the defenceman diving bravely to stop the puck as it lay in the crease with the dangerous Marc-Olivier Vallerand lurking, while Ciaran Long and Mark Garside in particular were huge.
That meant when Mark Cooper’s powerplay goal just 1:32 in was cancelled out by Tanner Eberle’s snipe just 38 seconds into the second period, it was overtime and then a shoot-out to decide the destination of the title.
It would fall the way of the Giants, Conway beating Stojanovic — who made 30 saves in regulation — one more time for the championship-winning goal.
“It’s amazing. It’s a credit to the guys in that room,” said Keefe.
“A couple of months ago we were six points back. We talked about chipping away one point a time, one game at a time, one shift at a time. It happened a little sooner than we thought, and then we had to hold onto first place.
“We had that double-header at home (against Sheffield) and we let the second game slip away, otherwise we would have won the league a bit earlier. We wanted to learn a lesson from that and make sure we got it done tonight.
“We wanted that killer instinct — to be lions and not gazelles in that locker room, and there were no gazelles in there.”
For captain David Goodwin, this was an emotional one. The American winger came in at the start of the season acknowledging that he had unfinished business in Belfast after the pandemic-shortened 2019/20 season — he’s chalked two of those pieces of business off already.
With the Challenge Cup already in their possession, the Giants can now rest up and prepare for the Play-Offs and a chance to complete a rare Grand Slam by taking possession of all three trophies on offer in the Elite League.
It’s been a long road that started all the way back on October 16 with a 3-2 loss at the Cardiff Devils. It’s ended with the team lifting the trophy they so desperately craved having beaten their closest challengers on their own ice, and with their captain nearly in tears.
“It’s so emotional. We grinded so hard the whole season. It didn’t matter if we were in Manchester, in Fife, a three in three, a four in five,” said Goodwin.
“Colossal weight off the shoulders. Being captain of the Belfast Giants, there is a pressure on you. I’ve been anxiety filled a lot of the time but it’s all been worth it.
“I love the city of Belfast so much, to be able to bring a trophy home... I can’t wait to see all the fans at the airport tomorrow. Amazing feeling.”