Fans angry as rivals get result to knock out Belfast Giants
Belfast Giants coach Steve Thornton remained diplomatic last night in the midst of conspiracy theories that surrounded the Continental Cup semi-final tournament, as his team agonisingly missed out on a place in the Super Final.
The Giants were within touching distance of reaching the final tournament in early January after they won a thrilling game against Sanok of Poland 5-3, despite trailing 2-1 and 3-2.
Angry fans flooded social media, however, after Neman Grodno beat the Angers Ducs 4-3 in the evening game - the only outcome that could deny the Giants progress to the final tournament.
Anything other than a one-goal victory for Belarus side Grodno would have put the Giants through and knowing that they needed to avoid a two-goal defeat to progress Angers caused controversy by selecting their back-up goaltender for the match.
Even Belfast Giants player David Phillips wrote 'Rigged' on his Twitter feed after that game, which saw seven goals scored in the first 30 minutes, but none scored in the remaining half an hour as both the Belarus and French side secured their progress.
Not only was it a heart-breaking outcome for the Giants, it has also denied Belfast a massive hockey weekend in the new year, as the Odyssey Trust, which owns the Giants, wanted to bring the Super Final to Northern Ireland.
"It felt good to win the game, but I've been in the same position twice before with the Great Britain national team - once in the World Championships and once in Olympic qualifying - and watched the final game turn out like it was supposed to to put us out," said a gutted Thornton.
"I didn't feel safe and when it came down to the third period and the score was good enough to put both teams through they didn't come out and push for more goals. Nobody wanted to make the mistake that would put their team out.
"I am really proud of how some of the guys played, particularly as we were short-rostered, but it's hard to be happy even though we've won two matches at the semi-final stage of a European competition.
"It was there for the taking and we can't be satisfied because we didn't have success. We played badly for 15 minutes in the whole tournament and it cost us."
The Giants had got off to a dream start when they won 1-0 in a hard-fought game with Grodno on Friday, but narrowly lost 2-1 to Angers on Saturday.
Evan Cheverie put the Giants 1-0 up against Sanok at 16:08, but within five minutes of the second period Jordan Knox and Robert Kostecki gave the Polish side the lead.
Mike Kompon and Darryl Lloyd scored either side of a goal from Jordan Pietrus to leave it 3-3 at the end of the second period before Mark McCutcheon and Adam Keefe struck to win the game.
The challenge for Thornton and his players now is to put the disappointment behind them as they go about retaining the Elite League title.
"I am upset and it's very frustrating because we were so close to going through," said Thornton.
"We wanted to win everything this season, but we've let one competition slip through our fingers.
"We were closer than you might think because all of the teams that we came up against were beatable.
"We have a travel day to reflect, but come Tuesday we have to forget about it and focus on some big games that we have coming up because there's no-one in our league who will feel sorry for us."