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First period blitz leads Belfast Giants over Clan to reach Challenge Cup final

Belfast Giants (7) 6-3 (5) Glasgow Clan

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Press Eye - Belfast -  Northern Ireland - 14th February 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants' Blair Riley celebrates scoring against the Glasgow Clan during Thursday nights Challenge Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg game at the SSE Arena, Belfast.   Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 14th February 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants' Blair Riley celebrates scoring against the Glasgow Clan during Thursday nights Challenge Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg game at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

William Cherry/Presseye

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 14th February 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Belfast Giants' Blair Riley celebrates scoring against the Glasgow Clan during Thursday nights Challenge Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg game at the SSE Arena, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

The title defence is still well and truly alive, and the Belfast Giants have shown no signs of giving up their Cup crown without a fight, as the Glasgow Clan found out to their detriment.

At times the Giants looked like they were going to cut loose at will with Jordan Smotherman making it four goals in five games in a Giants jersey as Belfast advanced to the final with the Guildford Flames in Cardiff on March 10.

Winger David Rutherford continued his point scoring streak since being dropped to the second line, adding a goal and an assist, while Chris Higgins also added two assists in the 6-3 win.

The powerplay was once again a potent weapon for Adam Keefe's side fresh off scoring six times at the weekend, going 3-for-4 on a hot night for the special teams.

The Giants now progress to their second consecutive Challenge Cup final thanks to the win, where they will defend their title against the Flames, whom they doubled up last weekend in the Elite League.

"We came out right off the start, had a good start and carried that right throughout the game," said defenceman Curtis Leonard.

"Our powerplay got going there, Smotherman had a goalscorer's goal, but any time they got a goal or had some good shifts, we came right back and settled things down to give us some confidence on the bench.

"Any time you get a chance to play for a Championship it's great, the guys had a great time last year winning it in Cardiff and hopefully we'll get the chance to do it again."

Glasgow came into the game 10-2 in their last 12 and holding that 2-1 lead from the first leg, but they never looked like troubling a Belfast side buoyed by the return of Patrick Dwyer in the early stages and quickly found themselves behind.

A play behind the net saw Vaclav Stupka take a holding call and the Belfast powerplay got to work, with Higgins' pass from underneath the left circle feeding Smotherman in the right circle where he finished at 9:33 to level the tie.

When Rutherford was the one to put the Giants ahead on aggregate for the first time at 13:36, Belfast had their former forward Brendan Connolly to thank for taking a needless unsportsmanlike conduct call,bringing out the powerplay unit again.

They duly delivered, Blair Riley's shot from the top of the left circle batted out of the air by Rutherford and he had the cool head to spin and finish low past Joel Rumpel in the Clan net.

With Glasgow's defence all at sea, the Giants wasted no time in punishing them further, Rumpel only able to push Colin Shields' effort back into the left circle where Smotherman was lurking to bury the rebound at 13:55.

Not to be left off the scoresheet either, Kyle Baun extended the Giants' lead at 18:17 when he took Darcy Murphy's drop pass in the left circle and used Patrick Dwyer's excellent screen out in front to beat Rumpel low.

However, Belfast's increasingly frustrating habit of conceding goals late in periods handed Glasgow a lifeline with 50.5 seconds remaining in the first, a turnover in the defensive zone allowing Scott Pitt to drag back across the goal for Matt Beca to finish.

Tyler Beskorowany turned away 25 of the 28 shots he faced, and his most important save was to deny Connolly early in the second when he went on a breakaway, and it looked even more important when Riley struck the Giants' fifth of the night.

The captain was found in the high slot, faked the shot perfectly to get inside the defenceman and then sniped one high blocker on Rumpel 4:22 into the second.

It was another former Giants forward, Craig Peacock, who again made it interesting at 13:45 of the second when he reduced the aggregate back to two when his drive beat Beskorowany low from the left circle.

And it was made even more interesting when, 5:25 into the third, Travis Ehrhardt was afforded the time and space to load up on one from the blue line and he lasered it into the top corner to make it a one-goal tie on aggregate.

But when Dwyer was hooked as he drove in on Rumpel by Zack Sullivan, the Giants' powerplay teams were once again called into service and they didn't disappoint, Josh Roach with the wrist shot through traffic that Rumpel never saw before it hit the twine at 7:27 of the final stanza.

The powerplay had one more chance to strike for the Giants when Peacock sat for goaltender interference, however this time they couldn't find the telling goal, although that wasn't to matter as Belfast held on.

"We got off to a great start and that was massive. We approached it as 'we win a hockey game and we move on', and I think we did exactly that," praised head coach Adam Keefe.

"Glasgow had a bit of push-back in the second period and put us under a lot of pressure and stress, but we came through that and tied the period to go into the third.

"I thought we did a great job of shutting down the last ten minutes or so and not giving them much, which is good for our guys to learn to play under that stress."

Belfast Telegraph