Cardiff Devis 5 Belfast Giants 2
Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe said his side were outworked in a disappointing weekend after losing back-to-back games to title rivals the Cardiff Devils at the Viola Arena.
Coming into the weekend with a chance to rein in the Devils at the top of the league standings and cut the deficit to one point with two wins, the Giants now trail the defending champions by nine after losing both instead.
They dropped Saturday's opener 4-2 and followed that up with a 5-2 loss in yesterday's second game, not helped by conceding three goals in a minute and 11 seconds in the first period.
While the title race isn't over yet, with the two sides set to meet in another doubleheader in Belfast next month, it is now a considerable margin for the Giants to bridge if they are to wrestle Cardiff's grip off the trophy.
"Two goals a game isn't going to cut it to win many hockey games in this league. We're trying to find some offense right now but we just can't find it," said a frustrated Keefe.
"I'd have to watch the video back but there were a lot of break downs both today and yesterday. We look like a tired bunch, and that's got to be on me, clearly they're not in shape.
"We got outworked and outskated by a championship side in Cardiff for two days. On the plus side tonight, our special teams were really good, they gave us some hope, but five-on-five we had no answer."
As hard as it is to believe, the Devils' three first period goals came against the run of play.
Up to the point that Mark Richardson gave them the lead at 12:50, on his 800th Elite League appearance, it had been all Belfast, the visitors doing everything except put the puck in the net.
Instead, Richardson struck when he finished off at the backdoor from Mike Hedden's nice feed, and then the Giants fell asleep from the resulting face-off and allowed Matt Pope to walk in unchallenged and finish around Tyler Beskorowany nine seconds later at 12:59.
It got worse before it got better, Cardiff with their tails up and continuing to pile the pressure on, and getting their reward when a rebound from Drew Schiestel's shot was turned in by Bryce Reddick at 14:01.
A well timed time-out from Keefe stemmed the tide until the first intermission, and after the restart the powerplay clicked.
Patrick Dwyer, continuing his hot streak, was at the centre of both goals on the man advantage as the Giants began a comeback, dumping the puck to Kyle Baun in the right circle for the first at 22:49 before scoring the second via a deflection off the skate of the unfortunate Reddick at 25:16.
But crucially the Giants couldn't find that leveller before the second intermission, Josh Roach and Lewis Hook both testing Ben Bowns from the right circle to no avail.
They paid early in the third, pushing everyone forward in search of the tying goal and allowing Devils defenceman Evan Mosey the breakaway when the puck was turned over.
The GB international looked composed, and he slotted it past Beskorowany five-hole to restore the two-goal lead at 42:03.
Beskorowany saved well from Joey Martin after Roach let him in with a poor giveaway, and at the other end Dustin Johner had a gilt-edged chance to make it a one-goal game when he was in one-on-one with Bowns, only to fire over the cage.
But, in truth, the hosts looked relatively comfortable with the two goal cushion, and when Baun went off for a tripping call, that settled the outcome.
Sean Bentivoglio took the puck behind the net, centred it back into the slot for Martin and the lethal finisher made no mistake shortside on Beskorowany at 52:46 to ensure there'd be no late drama in this one.