Giants edge ever closer to domestic silverware clean sweep
Jordan Smotherman grabbed a hat-trick as the Belfast Giants cruised to a spot in the Elite League's Finals Weekend to keep their hopes of completing the Grand Slam alive.
Two wins stand between the Giants and a domestic clean sweep of trophies after they accounted for the Coventry Blaze in their quarter-final, winning 12-2 on aggregate in a two-legged mauling.
Having won the first leg 5-0 at the SSE Arena on Saturday night, there was never any chance of the Giants easing off the pedal in the second leg, racing into a three-goal lead by the end of the first period at the SkyDome on their way to a 7-2 road win.
Winger Smotherman took his season's tally to 13 goals and 22 points in just 23 games with the Giants with his hat-trick and an assist as well, as Adam Keefe's men set up a Challenge Cup final rematch with the Guildford Flames in Saturday's semi-final.
The two sides will meet in Nottingham at 1pm in the first game of finals weekend, with the victors facing the winners of the second semi-final between the Cardiff Devils and Nottingham Panthers in Sunday's final to determine the play-off champions.
After easily accounting for the Blaze, the Giants will go in with no shortage of confidence, particularly given some of the quality of hockey they played.
From the off they set the tone, not happy to sit back on their five-goal lead from Saturday's first leg, with Patrick Dwyer hitting the crossbar early.
But the visitors wouldn't have to wait long for their opener, Jonathan Ferland scoring his second goal of the play-offs at 10:43 when he ripped a slapshot past Coventry netminder Jordan Hedley, who was in for regular starter Matt Hackett.
That lead was doubled at 12:59 when some beautiful passing play from Dwyer and Darcy Murphy found Jim Vandermeer skating on to the puck at the right circle and he fired a cannon of a one-timer past Hedley.
Vandermeer quickly turned from hero to villain when he took a combined holding and elbowing penalty to put the Giants on a four-minute penalty kill, but the special teams came through for them, and they were rewarded by Smotherman grabbing his first goal.
It came on the powerplay, with Blaze defenceman Nicolai Bryhnisveen off for tripping, and with two seconds left in the period, Smotherman found the twine with a precise shot from between the high slot.
While goaltender Hedley couldn't be faulted for the opening three goals, he was to blame for the fourth, the young Brit unable to glove a shot from Kyle Baun and Dustin Johner was lurking at the crease to steer it in 1:03 into the middle stanza.
However, Coventry began to make a fist of it and fought back, first Shawn Pauly grabbing a powerplay goal at 6:27 of the second with a five-hole finish on Giants netminder Tyler Beskorowany, before Ben Lake grabbed a shorthanded breakaway strike with 9:23 until the second interval.
Smotherman restored order for Belfast just 1:14 into the final period when he tapped in a rebound from Kendall McFaull's initial shot at the back door, and the American winger completed his treble with a five-hole finish on Hedley from the left circle with 1:57 remaining in the game.
There was even time for captain Blair Riley to grab his 38th goal of the season when he slammed home after Mark Garside fed him from behind the net with 29 seconds left on the clock for the Giants' seventh.
Now to Nottingham.