Giants bow out of Europe on sour note as Luleå shut them out in Sweden
Luleå HF 4-0 Belfast Giants
LULEA, Swe -- Their exit from the Champions League was confirmed last week, but the Belfast Giants' foray in Europe this season came to an end with a defeat.
American centre Jack Connolly came up with two powerplay goals in the Coop Norrbotten Arena, and goaltender David Rautio made just 12 saves in the shutout, as the Giants bowed out of Europe with a 4-0 loss to Swedish side Luleå.
Belfast did at least have some positives to take from the tie, with netminder Shane Owen having a strong game by making 32 saves - including 14 in the third period alone - but ultimately their first CHL tenure ends on a sour note.
Connolly had put the Swedish side ahead after just 16:12 of the first, firing home five-hole on Owen from the right circle, and then added their third at 15:35 of the second when he was set up by Arttu Ilomäki, again in the right circle, for an easy finish into the open cage.
Isac Brännström and top draft prospect Noel Gunler also added goals as Luleå cemented their place as group winners with a dominant display, while the Giants end their Champions League campaign with a 1-4-1 record and bottom of Group C with just four points.
"This isn't the way we wanted to finish our Champions League campaign, but that's a really good team over there," admitted captain Matt Pelech.
"Looking back I'm proud of the boys. When we play well, we can compete with some of the best in Europe. Tonight was just a tough night."
Once again, while the opposition were on another level, Belfast got a lesson in making your opportunities count at one end and making sure you don't grant the opposition easy chances at the other.
Things could have been different had Jordan Smotherman rapped home his one-timer from the right circle when the Giants were on the first powerplay of the game, Gunler in the box for high sticking, instead of snapping one straight at Rautio.
Instead, the Giants paid for taking consecutive penalties - Paul Swindlehurst returning to the box for a high stick after the visitors had just killed off his holding minor - and Connolly handed Luleå a lead they would never surrender.
"It's tough to get good looks on these guys because they're so defensively solid. You don't have long on the puck before somebody's on top of you," admitted head coach Adam Keefe.
"We struggled to create but we had a couple of looks. We had a three-on-one and a two-on-one didn't go in for us."
The Giants' powerplay on the night was 0-for-2, while Luleå were 2-for-4 on theirs when Connolly snapped home his second after being left all alone in the right circle after Smotherman was called for tripping.
By that stage it was clear the Swedes likely had the game already won, Nils Lundkvist driving the pass across the crease for Brännström to redirect in just 3:18 into the second period, and the third period was nothing more than a formality.
The fourth was cruel given how the Giants held out, surviving Robin Kovacs hitting the post and Owen putting his body on the line repeatedly to keep the waves of Swedish offense at bay.
But unfortunately sport doesn't work that way sometimes. Jesper Sellgren dished the puck across the crease for Gunler, the winger got enough of his stick on it to beat Owen five-hole and the scoring was completed with 2:53 left to go.
"They're skilled and when you give them too much time they're going to capitalise, which they did," said netminder Owen. "They scored a couple of powerplays. They were just a really skilled team."
For now, Europe is done and dusted for the Belfast Giants. Domestic matters take over again this weekend when they welcome the Manchester Storm (1-5-0, 2pts) for a double-header at the SSE Arena (7pm face-off).
A win or two would be the perfect tonic.
"Now we just need to bring that confidence into our league games coming up here," added Pelech. "The Champions League is done. It's in the rear view mirror. We have to move forward."
Belfast Telegraph Digital