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Vital strike: Curtis Leonard scores his dramatic overtime winner to hand the Giants a crucial victory over the Cardiff Devils on their way to last season’s Elite League title

Vital strike: Curtis Leonard scores his dramatic overtime winner to hand the Giants a crucial victory over the Cardiff Devils on their way to last season’s Elite League title

William Cherry/Presseye

Vital strike: Curtis Leonard scores his dramatic overtime winner to hand the Giants a crucial victory over the Cardiff Devils on their way to last season’s Elite League title

As the Belfast Giants ready themselves for what will be a season-defining double-header against the Cardiff Devils this weekend, it's pretty hard not to let your mind drift back to this time last campaign.

The two sides - who meet at the SSE Arena tonight for the first game of two at 7pm, with the second clash at the same venue at 4pm tomorrow - met in Belfast at the end of February 2019 in a double-header in what was then a momentous back-to-back battle in the context of the title race.

The Giants needed two wins to keep their hopes alive, while the Devils knew that splitting the weekend, or winning it, would all but hand them the trophy.

And while the weekend ended up being unforgettable, the two games will undoubtedly be remembered for that goal in Saturday's first encounter.

Having finished regulation time all square at 1-1, Curtis Leonard had seemingly won it for the Giants in overtime when his backhanded effort trickled through Ben Bowns' legs and millimetres over the line before being cleared, only for the refs not to call it on the ice.

But, after being called to take a second look at it on the replays by Giants head coach Adam Keefe, the officials determined after a gut-wrenching nine-minute review that the goal was indeed good, sealing a 2-1 win for the Giants and sending both the players on the ice and the fans in the stands into raptures.

The goal wasn't pretty, far from it, but Leonard didn't mind at all. He recalled: "It's probably one of the most important goals I've ever scored. It was great to get the goal, great to get the points. It was a surreal finish."

Even more importantly, it was a crucial goal in the title race. After at one stage being 11 points adrift of the Devils in the standings, Leonard's goal took the Giants above their rivals having clawed back the deficit, and it would eventually contribute to them going on to win the league on the final day of the season.

Somewhat ironically, almost 12 months on, they could do with the exact same outcome this weekend against the same opponents in the same building.

The Giants currently trail the Elite League leaders the Sheffield Steelers by nine points - although they do have two games in hand - and also have some catching up to do on Cardiff themselves, who are two points ahead of them having played two fewer games.

So, in the context of the season, this is a vital couple of fixtures for Keefe's men, and this time around they'll hope they don't need a nine-minute review in overtime to secure either win.

"We have to gain some ground because (Cardiff) have some games in hand, so these four points are huge," said defenceman Leonard.

"Everyone knows the importance and everybody knows the situation, so not a lot needs to be said. As hockey players we have a lot of pride, so we want to show up and give it our all."

It helps that the Giants have finally ended their streak of split weekends, taking both games last time out against the Glasgow Clan and Guildford Flames to record their first four-pointer since January 4.

With the boost of coming into this weekend with two wins at their backs, Leonard says the Giants are ready and eager to send out another statement in their efforts to come from behind and defend their Elite League crown.

"When you put a couple of wins together, it's a nice feeling in the locker room rather than being .500 back and forth," admitted Leonard.

"We're going in with the full intention of coming away with the four points. That'll set us up well for going down the stretch here and hopefully competing for the Championship."

Belfast Telegraph