Giants unable to rely on home comforts as Manchester storm SSE for shootout win
Belfast Giants 3-4 Manchester Storm (PS)
Coming back to the SSE Arena was meant to help ease the Belfast Giants' recent worries, but instead it has only exacerbated them.
With a 4-3 loss in the shootout to the bottom of the league Manchester Storm, it's now six defeats in a row for Adam Keefe's side and once again their clinical edge seemed to abandon them when they needed it most.
Jared Aulin got the crucial finish in the shootout, with Mario Puskarich and Tyson Fawcett also beating Stephen Murphy in the Giants' net, as Belfast lost their first league game at the SSE Arena since December 2018.
"We're fortunate to get a point. We're disappointed in there, that was unacceptable on our part," said captain Matt Pelech.
The shot count of 42-23, the possession and territorial dominance that the Giants exerted over their opponents is a true reflection of the game, with the Storm happy to weather the relentless Belfast offense and take their chances on the counter-attack, which they did.
Teenager Finlay Ulrick made the most of his chance, latching onto a bouncing puck at the blue-line and going top shelf over Giants starter Shane Owen's blocker side at 7:16 of the second period to tie it up.
Defenceman Raymond Grewal then grabbed the go-ahead goal 24 seconds later when he blasted one from the top of the left circle through traffic, beating an unsighted Owen, who departed in a rage having made just six saves on nine shots after just 7:40 of the second period.
Indeed, the hosts only got it to overtime when Ben Lake got a lucky bounce off the boards and roofed one past Manchester netminder Matt Ginn at 9:34 of the final period, however only Lake could beat Ginn in the shootout as they fell to another loss.
With the defeat, the Giants fall to 2-1-2 in the league and even more pressure will be piled onto Keefe's shoulders as his side continue to struggle simply to put wins on the board, let alone convincingly.
"Six losses in a row is unacceptable. People feel that. We want to win just as much as the fans do, if not more. It's our jobs. It's pride. We do have pride," insists defenceman Curtis Leonard.
"It's frustrating, but at the same time we can't break apart. We have to rally and come together. It's easy when things are good, pucks go in the net, and it's hard when things aren't going your way."
After their departure from the Champions League in midweek, the Giants came out firing with an energised start, and their fired-up nature was reflected in Jordan Smotherman dropping gloves with Declan Balmer early in the first period, something that will have delighted Keefe.
But the lack of a finishing product among the forwards continues to be a concern. Admittedly, they came up against an in-form netminder in Ginn, who made 39 saves, and they did ring the iron three times throughout the game.
Jesse Forsberg was the first to do so, on a first period wraparound, and Lewis Hook also did so on an angled shot in the second period, with the most galling coming with just 3.2 seconds left in regulation when Jean Dupuy cracked a backhander off the bar.
However, the fact that two of Belfast's three goals didn't come even strength either tells a story in itself, with Belfast striking shorthanded and then on the powerplay as they want ahead twice but could not close out the game again.
Bobby Farnham had put them ahead after just 3:11 of the first with a shorthanded finish on the breakaway, beating Ginn five-hole after cutting in from the right circle with Brian Ward in the box for hooking.
It was Ward who then put them ahead again at 1:53 of the second, John Negrin in the box for high sticking and the centre skating onto the puck in the mid-slot to redirect Jordan Smotherman's slap pass into the twine.
Between those two strikes, Layne Ulmer had tied things up with just 12.6 seconds to go until the first intermission when he dispossessed Mark Garside in the slot and rapped home the wrister five-hole on Owen.
However, despite peppering Ginn in the Manchester net - with, not for the first time, plenty of shots that were never serious concerns for the man between the pipes - and controlling the pace of play for the entire game, they still only put three on the board.
"We're having trouble finishing right now. That will come. Every team goes through spurts where they have trouble scoring, that's just come right out the gate for us," says Pelech.
"We just need to use our third period as motivation for tomorrow. When we're rolling - like we were in the third - changing quick, hemming teams back, we're really good."
At least the performance of Murphy between the pipes in relief of Owen - making 17 saves - is something that Keefe can take away from the game, as is the continually strong penalty kill, which was 3-for-3.
But while the powerplay did at least click on one occasion in running at a 1-for-3 clip, this is another game where the Giants will wonder just what they have to do to find the back of the net with any consistency.
"We have to take a look in there and rally around each other to find a way out of this thing. It'll be a long year if it's like this," added Leonard.
"I don't think that'll happen though. We'll find a way out of this."
They'll get a chance for revenge on the Storm (2-5-0, 4pts) tomorrow in the second game of their double-header at the SSE Arena (face-off 4pm).
Belfast Telegraph Digital