Challenge Cup woe as Belfast Giants lose against Cardiff Devils
Belfast Giants 1-3 Cardiff Devils (Cardiff won 8-4 on aggregate)
The Belfast Giants lost the battle, as well as the war, as their Challenge Cup quest ended in disappointment.
Trailing the Cardiff Devils 5-3 from the first leg in Wales, the Giants gave it everything they had, but couldn't overturn the two-goal deficit and instead lost 3-1 on the night and 8-4 overall.
Mike Forney had opened the scoring to give the Giants at least a glimmer of hope, but goals from Leigh Salters, Carl Hudson and Joey Haddad gave Cardiff a comfortable win overall.
Derrick Walser's players didn't let him down though and ultimately it was Cardiff's defence and clinical finishing that won the game.
The Giants knew they needed to score the first goal in order to have any chance of turning the tie around - and the earlier the better.
They came out strongly and David Rutherford and Forney brought saves out of Cardiff goaltender Ben Bowns in the opening stages of the game.
Bowns then denied Craig Peacock before Cardiff came within inches of breaking the deadlock with a shot that rang Stephen Murphy's pipes during a powerplay.
At the end of a pulsating, yet scoreless, first period, the Giants had put 13 shots on the Cardiff goal, with Bowns being equal to all of them.
That meant the Giants had only 40 minutes left to score the three goals that they needed to win the tie.
The second period was only three minutes old when the Giants got the all important first goal that they had been looking for.
Forney got the final touch on a puck that was deflected twice before beating Bowns.
The Giants upped the ante and began to throw even more at the Cardiff defence, but their attacking intent was curtailed when Kris Beech was sent to the penalty box for a high-sticking offence, spending a total of four minutes off the ice.
Cardiff levelled the scores on the night after a period of sustained pressure in front of the Giants goal during the final seconds of their powerplay.
Guillaume Doucet and Ryan Russell worked the puck through the Giants defence and Salters struck his 18th goal of the season.
Mike Radja came close to putting the Giants back in front just seconds later, but it was soon clear that the Devils goal had knocked the stuffing out of Walser's men.
Peacock did test Bowns again in the final minute of the second period and the Cardiff goaltender looked to have been beaten by Chris Higgins early in the third only for the forward to miss the net with his shot.
Bowns then had to save after his own player, Andrew Lord, almost deflected the puck into his net.
The Giants task got a degree more difficult when they had Darryl Lloyd kicked out of the game seven minutes into the third period. He put in what was deemed to have been a hit from behind on Joey Martin and was immediately ejected on a game misconduct penalty.
Giants' Mitch Ganzak and Cardiff's Andrew Hotham also spent two minutes each in the penalty box for their part in the melee that ensued.
Cardiff's second goal of the night - which came during the powerplay that followed - killed the tie.
Hudson skated into space in the centre of the Giants zone and picked his spot beyond Murphy at 51:07.
Walser himself was called for a tripping offence a minute later and soon after the Giants had returned to full strength, he threw caution to the wind and pulled Murphy for an extra outfield player with a full four minutes still on the clock.
The Giants had a period of sustained pressure in the Cardiff zone, but when the Devils won the puck, Haddad fired it into the empty net at 57:27 to rule out any lingering hopes of a comeback.
Cardiff will now almost certainly face the Nottingham Panthers in the final. They face Sheffield tonight leading 8-0 from last night's first leg.