The last time the Belfast Giants were in Guildford — where they are tomorrow (7:30pm) to take on the Flames in an Elite League meeting — one of the team’s longest droughts was finally ended.
The game, on January 26, saw the Giants ease to a comfortable 5-2 win over the Flames at the Spectrum, but when centre Ciaran Long poked home the visitors’ fourth goal of the night, it sparked wild celebrations both on the ice and among the players on the bench.
Line-mate Bobby Farnham nearly knocked Long over, such was the force he jumped into him with. The other three players on the ice, Ryan Lowney, Curtis Hamilton and Mark Garside, followed quickly and wrapped the British forward in a bear-hug. The bench was roaring unanimously in approval.
Long could only grin sheepishly as he accepted the fist bumps from his Giants team-mates as he skated by. After all, it was his first goal in three-and-a-half months.
“He’d deserved a goal for a long time. I was so happy, the whole bench was. He’d been playing so well and he finally got that goal, which was awesome,” beamed a delighted Farnham.
“Pure excitement, honestly. Couldn’t be happier for a better guy and I think you saw that throughout the team.”
Long’s wait for a goal was not down to a lack of trying. Indeed, if there was an award for most posts hit or goals robbed by exceptional saves, the 29-year-old would have undoubtedly been at the forefront of the nominees.
Coming into the team prior to the season off a 29-goal, 65-point season with the Manchester Storm, the hope was that he would be a key offensive component for the Giants this season, but a combination of a lack of ice time and bad luck saw his numbers take a nosedive in Belfast.
But the Brit ace, rather than letting his head drop, instead put in the hard graft and paid his dues before being rewarded against the Flames, poking in a rebound at the back door to finally get on the scoresheet after 34 games without a goal.
“We all knew he’d been a bit snake bitten. He’d been having his chances and had either hit the post or rang it off the goalie’s helmet, or it fell just out of his reach and he couldn’t finish it,” admitted Garside.
“It was nice for him to get that one and the guys were delighted for him. Hopefully he can kick on now. You know what they say, goals are like bananas, they come in bunches!”
That’s proven somewhat true for Long. He added his second league goal in four games when scoring against his former side the Storm on Saturday and has also contributed five assists in nine games since January 12, a stat that is made somewhat more impressive by the fact he’d scored just ten points in his previous 47 outings.
It’s led to increased ice time and even a stint on the second powerplay unit with Hamilton currently sidelined due to injury. With increased output has come increased trust from head coach Adam Keefe, and it's resulted in a severe upturn in offensive production.
Indeed, if he had been on this scoring run - which currently sits at 0.78 points per game - all season then the Birmingham native would be on target for 12 goals and 47 points across the league, which is something much closer to what he would have expected.
So, what’s changed? According to the man himself, not a thing.
“Haven’t changed anything, I’ve just got to keep working hard and the chances will keep coming,” he said after being named man of the match against Manchester on Saturday.
“It’s not like I haven’t been getting the chances, I have been getting the chances. If I wasn’t getting any chances then I would be worried. I knew I was getting myself in the right spots and I knew it’d come eventually.”
But while his worth hasn’t been as evident as hoped on the scoresheet, something which is quickly changing, the words of his team-mates no doubt carry substantial weight in what Long has brought to this Giants roster in the interim.
Always bearing a grin and never short of a witty comment — constantly jabbing with reporters, including this one, over his hatred of doing media duties — he’s a significant member of the locker room, and it shows in what his team-mates, and friends, have to say about him.
“Longer’s such a big part of the locker room. He’s a great team-mate, he wants every guy to have success, and for him to get one knowing the work he puts in and the kind of guy he is, everyone’s so happy for him,” said alternate captain Curtis Leonard.
“He deserves to do well and I don’t think the fans get to see the quality of the person he is in our locker room. He makes some quality plays. I know he’s been a bit snake-bitten but it’s great to see that weight lifted off him.”
Defenceman Lowney concurred, adding: "It’s awesome for him. The guy had been due a goal for so long. We tried to make the celebration pretty nice. He knows we're behind him all the way."
The Giants are currently battling for the league title, sitting five points off leaders the Sheffield Steelers with 12 games left to play, however they’re still searching for a consistent outlet to provide them goals as they are ranked eighth in the league in goals per game (2.98).
They could really do with an offensive spark down the stretch. If his numbers hold up, Long could prove to be just that.
“He’s a smart player. Great player. Obviously he’s proven himself in this league, scored a lot of goals,” concluded Farnham.
“I think he could be a massive player for us down the stretch.”