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Title contender: Adam Keefe

Title contender: Adam Keefe

William Cherry/Presseye

Title contender: Adam Keefe

Despite the spread of the coronavirus impacting nearly every other ice hockey league worldwide, the Elite League (EIHL) is set to soldier on, meaning for the Belfast Giants it is business as usual this weekend.

Yesterday saw the suspension of the NHL, the sport's pinnacle league in North America, marking a significant point in the sport's battle with Covid-19.

In Europe, elite leagues across the continent have been affected, with the likes of the Swedish Hockey League and Czech Extraliga postponing their play-offs, while the Swiss National League and the German DEL have already announced a premature end to their seasons, cancelling the play-offs altogether.

However, despite nearly every other league announcing a suspension of games - the only other top tier leagues where games are still currently being played are the Kontinental Hockey League, which is made up predominantly of Russian teams, and the Finnish Liiga - the EIHL have confirmed that, in line with the UK government update issued yesterday, games will continue until further notice.

"The Elite League and its member teams will continue to follow advice issued by the UK government and public health authorities of each UK region with regards to sports events," read the EIHL's statement released earlier in the week.

"We do not currently have any advice from these bodies to suggest games should not go ahead as planned."

For the Giants (fourth, 28-16-4, 60pts), that means they face a massive weekend in the title race - which, of course, may not even reach a conclusion with two weeks of the regular season still to be played and the nation's health situation not improving - against rivals the Nottingham Panthers at the SSE Arena, with the English side in Belfast tonight (7pm) for the first of two games this weekend.

Adam Keefe's side trail league leaders the Cardiff Devils in the Elite League standings by four points, with the Giants having just six games remaining in the season compared to Cardiff's eight.

That means Belfast can ill-afford any more slip-ups, lest they see their title defence come to a premature end, and that likely means having to double up a stubborn Panthers (fifth, 27-15-4, 58pts) side that have designs on stealing in and snatching the Championship themselves.

While two defeats this weekend wouldn't mathematically rule the Giants out of contention for the Elite League title, it would all but eliminate them from the race given it would leave them needing Cardiff to lose all their remaining games - which seems fairly unlikely - as well as Belfast going perfect in their final four games.

The Giants haven't matched up well against the Panthers this season having not scored against them in their last two meetings in Nottingham, with their last goal against their title rivals coming on a 6-on-4 powerplay back in November.

The Giants should be boosted by the return of Team GB international defenceman Paul Swindlehurst to the line-up for tonight's game after he missed last week's victory over the Fife Flyers through injury.

Belfast Telegraph