Belfast Giants 3-2 Manchester Storm
Against his former side, Ciaran Long led a two-goal third period for the Belfast Giants as they returned from their week's break with a 3-2 win over the Manchester Storm on Saturday.
Long got the go-ahead goal at 6:26 of the third period, tipping in Kevin Raine's blue-line slapshot for his fourth goal of the season, before adding an assist to Brian Ward's game-winner.
The centre supplied the tip on Patrick Mullen's slap-pass with 5:14 left on the clock for the powerplay strike - his 17th of the season - for the crucial goal that gets Adam Keefe's side back in the win column in their first game back after their break.
"Haven't changed anything, I've just got to keep working hard and the chances will keep coming," said man of the match Long.
"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."
Storm forward Scott Simmonds grabbed a double, with his second making it a nervy one-goal game with just 2:31 remaining, but Belfast shut the door and held on for the victory that cuts the gap to the top of the table to five points after the Sheffield Steelers fell to a shock home loss to Dundee.
The Giants are now 25-14-2 on the season thanks to a 26-save display from netminder Shane Owen, who saved a Tyson Fawcett penalty shot in the first period, and Long's two-point night.
Belfast also saw defenceman Curtis Leonard break a seven-game points drought when he added an assist on Jordan Smotherman's opener for the Giants, who will still be concerned by their lack of finishing touch, but will take the win on their return for action.
"It was closer than I would have liked, but every team is playing for their spot in the standings. First place, play-off spots, it doesn't matter, every team is playing for something down the stretch," said Keefe.
"It wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't easy. But I did like our push back in the third period with a couple clutch goals. I thought we did really well to close that out in the final stages."
The tone for the game was set early when Ryan Lowney dropped the gloves with Manchester forward Cody Thompson, the defenceman taking exception to Thompson snowing Owen, with the visitor getting the takedown.
Both sides had powerplay looks in the first, with Henrik Samuelsson taking a hooking call for the Storm and Ben Lake heading off for holding for the Giants, but neither side could capitalise.
Instead, it was at even strength that Belfast pulled ahead, Elgin Pearce firing the puck to the crease where Smotherman was on hand to get the tip-in past Matt Ginn - 35 saves - to make it 1-0 at 18:23.
Owen then had to stand up tall just nine seconds later to preserve the lead, though, after Lake tripped up Cam Braes when clean through on goal to concede the penalty shot, however the netminder made the stop on Fawcett one-on-one.
Belfast couldn't make the most of a pair of powerplays in the middle frame, Layne Ulmer taking a tripping minor split across the first intermission and Raymond Grewal called for hooking, and the hosts paid once again for their inability to finish in front of goal.
The visitors' leveller came at 17:15 of the second and completely against the run of play, Mario Puskarich taking the hopeful shot through traffic from the blue-line and Scott Simmonds getting the telling touch to take it through Owen's five-hole for 1-1.
Once again it looked like the Giants' special teams had come up short for them early in the final period when they couldn't finish with Mathieu Gagnon off for roughing, with Liam Morgan hitting the post the closest they came with Manchester shorthanded, but on the next shift Long found the clincher.
The ex-Storm forward won the net battle, getting himself the inch of space to apply the telling touch to Kevin Raine's shot from the blue-line at 6:26 for the go-ahead goal to make it 2-1.
"Saw the puck go up to Rainer and I tried to get good position on Rainer. Fortunately the puck came off the right side of my stick and into the net," explained Long.
Where the Giants' special teams with the man advantage couldn't get it done, their penalty kill was exceptional, playing out Liam Reddox's four-minute penalty for interference and unsportsmanlike conduct, aided by Dallas Ehrhardt's tripping call midway through.
And that set up Ward to get the game-winner at 14:46 of the final period with Ehrhardt in the box for unsportsmanlike conduct, the centre supplying the telling touch to Mullen's driven pass to the crease and into the roof of the net to take the three points home.
There was still time for Simmonds to make it nervy when he pounced on a rebound in the right circle and found the gap through traffic to find the twine past Owen's glove side for 3-2, however that wasn't enough to spark a remarkable comeback for the visitors.
"I felt like we always had that game under control. The boys came up big in that third period. After the big break we had, it takes a while to get back into things, but at the end of the day we got two points which was the most important thing," added Long.
Belfast will be delighted with their excellent 4-for-4 penalty kill, which particularly helped them in closing the game out in the third, however their 1-for-8 powerplay still leaves plenty to be desired despite it providing Ward's game-winner.
The Giants are back in action Sunday afternoon when they travel to the Nottingham Panthers (24-13-3, 51pts, 3rd) for a top-of-the-table matinee clash at the Motorpoint Arena.