Giants stand tall but are edged out by Panther
Short-benched and on the road, the Belfast Giants pulled a performance out of the bag that left head coach Adam Keefe delighted with his roster despite going down 3-1 to German side Augsburger Panther in their Champions League clash.
Henry Haase's laser beam of a strike from the left circle with just 7:15 remaining in the third period proved the game-winner in a tight contest at the Curt-Frenzel-Stadion as the Giants battled through adversity to almost snatch a result.
The visitors had to cope without two of their defencemen in suspended skipper Matt Pelech and the injured Jesse Forsberg, yet still almost came away with at least a point from the tie when Brian Ward tipped in Liam Morgan's shot with 8:39 remaining in the game, only for Haase's brilliant hit to steal all three points.
Canadian forward Adam Payerl added an empty netter with just 42.5 seconds left on the clock to ensure there would be no late drama and that the Panthers would walk away with the points.
Despite that, Keefe was happy with his team's display, particularly after their harrowing 6-1 loss to Bili Tygri Liberec on Thursday night, and hailed his battling heroes.
"It was a great performance and the bounce back we wanted from Thursday night," beamed head coach Keefe.
"We were down a few extra bodies from Thursday as well, so we were facing some adversity. But we talked about the adversity and what that could produce in the locker room, and I thought it was a great 60 minutes from our guys in terms of sacrifice and effort out on the ice.
"It's certainly something we can build on.
"Yes, we would have loved to have taken it to overtime, but it wasn't to be tonight."
The defeat puts Belfast bottom of Group C in the CHL, but that doesn't take away from what was a superb performance from a depleted squad, who gave everything they had to push Augsburg all the way.
Matt Fraser had put the Germans ahead at 7:38 of the second period when he poked in a rebound at the crease, but it could have been a lot worse had netminder Shane Owen not had a fantastic 38-save performance in goal and the penalty kill hadn't come up strong again, going 6-for-6 on the night, including two big 5-on-3 kills early in the third period. Keefe's men had their chances too, with Curtis Leonard ringing the iron on the powerplay early in the second period, while Lewis Hook, Ben Lake and Jordan Smotherman all had excellent opportunities denied by Augsburg netminder Markus Keller - who had an outstanding 24-save night for the Germans.
Regardless, this was a performance that the Giants will, rightfully, take great pride in as, once again, they pushed another European heavyweight right to the end in what has been a sensational debut CHL campaign.
The Giants now park the Champions League as they go into domestic action for the first time this season when they welcome the Glasgow Clan to the SSE Arena on Saturday night (face-off 7pm).
"The Champions League has been great for our club and it's an experience we can grow on," added Keefe.
"But now we have to put it to the back of our mind, the Challenge Cup starts next weekend for us.
"That's another new experience for most of our players, one we're looking forward to."
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