Lulea have too much class as Giants knocked out of Champions League
Belfast Giants 3-6 Lulea HF
Threatening a comeback in the third period, the Belfast Giants were dealt a harsh hockey lesson by one of the European heavyweights.
Hope sprang eternal in the SSE Arena when, trailing 3-0 to Lulea heading into the third period, the Giants struck twice on the powerplay to make it a one-goal game, bringing the crowd back into the game and shocking the Swedes.
Liam Morgan had grabbed his fifth of the season, finishing a back door play with Joonas Jalvanti (holding) in the box, before Liam Reddox got off the mark when he slid home a rebound from Jordan Smotherman's shot at 3:19 to cut the gap further.
But as the crowd finally got into the game, Lulea responded in the perfect fashion to silence them once more, and the Giants finally got a true reflection on what it takes to compete against the top European sides.
Within 70 seconds, the game was over once again, Isac Brannstrom finding Robin Kovacs at the back door to restore the two-goal lead at 5:04 before Petter Emanuelsson spun and finished high over Shane Owen's shoulder at 6:14 of the third.
That signalled an end to the contest and, with it, the Giants' hopes of reaching the knockouts. They were slim as it was, needing two regulation wins over the Swedes in their final two games to make the last-16, but at 1-3-1, their hopes are now officially over.
"We knew we needed to be at the best we could be to compete against Lulea. I thought there were a lot of parts of the game where we were competing very well and smothering their offense," praised Keefe.
"That being said, we made some mistakes that you can't make against that team and we ended up chasing the game.
"At a time when we're struggling to create some offense, we found ourselves chasing the game and it's hard to do that against a Swedish elite team."
There are positives to take, of course, the compete level against the best side the Giants will face this season an obvious one, while Reddox grabbing not just one but two goals to get off the mark this season is another bonus.
The winger, starved of finishes this campaign, added his second with 5:21 remaining in the game, beating Lulea netminder David Rautio - 30 saves - on the wraparound for his second in the period.
"It feels good to contribute. I'm here to contribute on the scoresheet and it hasn't happened yet. Hopefully this is the start of going in the right direction," said Reddox.
"I've just got to stick to the process and get to the net. If you look at my career, that's where I score my goals, so I have to battle to get the puck."
But that was quickly followed by Arttu Ilomaki smashing home a one-timer from the left circle with Jean Dupuy in the box for a face-off violation with 4:39 remaining to round off the scoring.
By then, however, the game had gone beyond the Giants, if it hadn't already been by the time they pulled it back to a one-goal affair early in the third, as Lulea showed their class in the first two periods to sail into a three-goal lead by the second intermission.
Defenceman Jalvanti had opened the scoring way back in the first period when his wrister from the point screamed high past Owen's glove side at 5:26 of the first to put the Swedes ahead.
Juhani Tyrvainen rocketed a one-timed slapshot past Owen - 24 saves - at 5:25 of the second to double the visitors' lead, and then Austin Farley finished five-hole on the netminder with 18:17 gone of the middle period after Jack Connolly chased down a dump in and pulled it back perfectly for him.
"Couple goals against and we're playing from behind the whole game," said defenceman Kevin Raine.
"You give a team like that opportunities and they're going to capitalise, and they did. When they got their punches, they hit us on the chin."
It could have been worse by the end of the first as the Giants' penalty kill needed to bail them out when Bobby Farnham and Paul Swindlehurst (both slashing) took calls, only for the Giants' unit to subject Owen to just four shots on the man disadvantage.
On the whole, the Giants' special teams were much improved, the powerplay a vastly better 2-for-9 on the night, while the kill was superb against a fast moving Lulea team at 3-for-4.
They'll be left to reflect on a night where, had they maybe been a little more clinical, things maybe could have been different. Morgan saw a backhand slide just wide at the end of the first period, while seven missed powerplay opportunities speak for themselves.
But, ultimately, Belfast's dreams of the knockouts have fallen flat already. On Saturday they go to the Glasgow Clan (face-off 7pm) in the Challenge Cup needing a result to make the knockouts of the competition.
"It's do-or-die," says Reddox. "Everyone in that room has to man up and show up and have our best game of the year."
The big games just keep on coming.
Belfast Telegraph Digital