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How do the Belfast Giants stack up against their rivals in the race for the Elite League title?

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Belfast Giants forward Ben Lake with Nottingham Panthers forward Jon Rheault (William Cherry/Presseye)

Belfast Giants forward Ben Lake with Nottingham Panthers forward Jon Rheault (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants forward Ben Lake with Nottingham Panthers forward Jon Rheault (William Cherry/Presseye)

With the key contenders in the Elite League coming off a week's break following Great Britain's Olympic qualifiers, the attention switches back to what will be a thrilling title race down the stretch.

The Belfast Giants are one of the teams who are hoping to be standing at the summit come the end of the season as they look to chase down league leaders the Sheffield Steelers with just 14 games left to play.

However, also in the chasing pack are the Cardiff Devils and Nottingham Panthers, who both have their own designs on taking home the Elite League title, setting up what should be an exciting conclusion!

Here, we assess how the contenders stack up ahead of their final run-ins...

BELFAST GIANTS

Record: 24-14-2, 50pts, 3rd

Fixtures against title rivals: Feb 16: Nottingham (A), Feb 23: Sheffield (A), Mar 13: Nottingham (H), Mar 14: Nottingham (H), Mar 28: Cardiff (A)

WE'LL start with the Giants themselves who, despite their frustrating inconsistency this season, are still right in the thick of the title race and know, from last season, that they do have the capability to claw back deficits in the standings down the stretch.

This season, their schedule lends itself to a strong finish once again, with eight home games as opposed to six road games. Of those eight games at the SSE Arena, three look to be a guaranteed two points against the abysmal Fife Flyers, while the Manchester Storm should also prove straightforward, even if they have been something of a bogey team in Belfast over recent years.

However, working against them is that they have arguably the toughest run-in with regards to their title rivals. The Giants are 6-9-0 against the other teams in the race this season and still have to travel to each of Sheffield, Cardiff and Nottingham before the end of the season, while the Panthers also come to the SSE Arena for a double-header in March. If they are to defend their title, they will likely have to overturn their poor top-four record.

Defensively, the team are still as resolute as ever, possessing an Elite League-leading 2.50 goals against average, while netminder Shane Owen leads the league in save percentage (.924) in goalies who have played more than 16 games. However, as has been the case all season, they need to increase their offensive output given they rank seventh in the league in goals per game (3.05) if they are to stand any chance of silverware.

Belfast are the only top-four side not to have a player scoring at better than a point-a-game, with Elgin Pearce the best at 15 points in 16 games. While they don't need to rack up their points production massively given their stingy defence, the Giants could do with a few more forwards boosting their overall output to relieve pressure on their blue-line.

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The Sheffield Steelers celebrate scoring in against the Belfast Giants at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

The Sheffield Steelers celebrate scoring in against the Belfast Giants at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

The Sheffield Steelers celebrate scoring in against the Belfast Giants at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

SHEFFIELD STEELERS

Record: 28-13-1, 57pts, 1st

Fixtures against title rivals: Feb 22: Nottingham (A), Feb 23: Belfast (H), Mar 6: Cardiff (A), Mar 29: Cardiff (H)

TOP of the table and scoring goals for fun, the Steelers are the real deal after a down year last season. Aaron Fox seems to have had an immediate impact since arriving in England and his side are the current pace-setters going into the final stage of the campaign, even if they don't own the best points percentage.

Sheffield are the only side averaging over four goals a game (4.36) and are an offensive juggernaut, meaning teams have to outscore them rather than stifle them on a nightly basis, and that's a lot harder to do when the threats are coming from all directions. Between Marc-Olivier Vallerand, Brendan Connolly, Anthony DeLuca, Tanner Eberle and Marek Troncinsky, the Steelers are guaranteed to score goals in every game.

Unsurprisingly, that means they match up very well against the Giants, who have struggled to contain their rivals despite their excellent defensive record. The two teams meet on February 23 at the flyDSA Arena as part of the Steelers' run-in, which is arguably the easiest of the four contenders'. Two of their four games against their rivals are in the confines of their home arena, one of which is a massive game on the final day of the season against Cardiff.

Beyond that, their schedule is favourable too. Two games against Fife and three with Dundee should yield points, however they have two particularly testing trips to Guildford - whom they lost to last time out - still to navigate. On top of that, they also have to travel to the Panthers and Devils before the season's end, and their defense is still shaky, as reflected in their fifth-ranked goals against average (3.07).

But, when it all shakes out at the end of the season, the Steelers should still be there in the mix. After all, the team who have averaged the most goals per game have won the title in the last three seasons...

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Belfast Giants winger Bobby Farnham comes to blows with Cardiff Devils winger Sean Bentivoglio and defenceman Shaone Morrisonn during Saturday night's game at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

Belfast Giants winger Bobby Farnham comes to blows with Cardiff Devils winger Sean Bentivoglio and defenceman Shaone Morrisonn during Saturday night's game at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants winger Bobby Farnham comes to blows with Cardiff Devils winger Sean Bentivoglio and defenceman Shaone Morrisonn during Saturday night's game at the SSE Arena (William Cherry/Presseye)

CARDIFF DEVILS

Record: 25-11-2, 52pts, 2nd

Fixtures against title rivals: Feb 29: Nottingham (A), Mar 6: Sheffield (H), Mar 21: Nottingham (A), Mar 28: Belfast (H), Mar 29: Sheffield (A)

CURRENTLY the best placed of the sides given their best points percentage, this Devils team may not be quite as fearsome as previous iterations but are still a ruthlessly clinical outfit that can tear teams apart at will. Not to mention that they can, under Andrew Lord, go an all-conquering winning run at any point, which would be very timely after the break.

With two visits to Nottingham and one to Sheffield - on the final day of the season - still to traverse, and further games at the Viola Arena against the Steelers and Giants still to play, the Devils rival Belfast for the toughest run-in of the four contenders, although similarly they have nine home games as opposed to just seven on the road, which works in their favour.

They do have a couple of pitfalls thrown in there too, still having to face a very tricky Blaze side in Coventry, the Clan in Glasgow, as well as welcoming the Guildford Flames to Cardiff, so if the Devils are to wrestle back the title that they lost to the Giants last season then they will certainly be well worth their crown given the games they face.

Much like the Giants, however, Cardiff are reliant on their defense bailing out a slightly under-firing offense. It hasn't helped that star man, and captain, Joey Martin has been sidelined for large chunks of the season, but while two-way defenceman Gleason Fournier has kept up his strong scoring, the Devils could do with a bit more in front of goal.

A continuation of his big finish to the season from British netminder Ben Bowns would catapult the Devils into a really strong position in the title race, while finding some supplementary scoring from the likes of Mike McNamee, Blair Riley and Stephen Dixon would certainly help too, especially against the bigger teams down the stretch.

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Brian Ward battles against the Nottingham Panthers (William Cherry/Presseye)

Brian Ward battles against the Nottingham Panthers (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

Brian Ward battles against the Nottingham Panthers (William Cherry/Presseye)

NOTTINGHAM PANTHERS

Record: 23-13-3, 49pts, 4th

Fixtures against title rivals: Feb 16: Belfast (H), Feb 29: Cardiff (H), Mar 13: Belfast (A), Mar 14: Belfast (A), Mar 21: Cardiff (H)

GIVE the Panthers credit where it's due, they have recruited outstandingly well mid-season after seemingly wandering towards mediocrity prior to their Continental Cup run. The arrivals of Jake Hansen, Julian Talbot and Ryan Horvat have been inspired signings by Gui Doucet, while the capture of Sam Herr in the summer might be the best addition of the entire season.

As a result, they find themselves right in the thick of things come the business end of the season, helped largely by netminder Kevin Carr - remember all that Danny Taylor nonsense? - who has been excellent in keeping things quiet at the back too (.918 save percentage). From what could have been another poor campaign, there could be a strong finish on the cards.

They'll look at their schedule and think that too. With a double-header in Belfast their only road games against any of the other top-four, there's every possibility that they could snatch a lot of points off their rivals, although their record against their title contenders is a middling 7-8-2 (and a Challenge Cup draw), which needs to improve in the latter stages of the season.

Allied to that is that their toughest road game beyond one trip to the Spectrum to face the Guildford Flames is at the Glasgow Clan and all the pieces seem to be falling into place for the Panthers to surge from behind and potentially steal away the title from one of the teams that has been fancied to win it all season.

Like their rivals, they could maybe do with a little more secondary scoring to back up the outstanding Herr and the work being done from the blue-line by Mark Matheson, however not to the same extent as Belfast and Cardiff need it. Arguably Nottingham's biggest test is can they get it done when the chips are down?

Belfast Telegraph