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Mark Cooper hat-trick, Tyler Beskorowany shut-out take Belfast Giants one step closer to title after wild day

Belfast Giants 5 Guildford Flames 0


Belfast Giants winger Mark Cooper scores his hat-trick goal against the Guildford Flames (William Cherry/Presseye)

Belfast Giants winger Mark Cooper scores his hat-trick goal against the Guildford Flames (William Cherry/Presseye)

William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants winger Mark Cooper scores his hat-trick goal against the Guildford Flames (William Cherry/Presseye)

A lot of lost baggage, a near cancellation, a two-hour delay an emergency back-up goaltender, one missing referee, a hat-trick and a shut-out. Had there been a fight then you could probably say that the SSE Arena saw it all on Sunday afternoon.

A bizarre day saw the Belfast Giants' game against the Guildford Flames almost called off – in fact, at one point it was – but instead they ended it three points clear at the top of the Premier Sports Elite League.

A baggage mix-up saw the Flames arrive at the SSE Arena without a large amount of their equipment and back-up netminder Adam Long, and as the crowds amassed outside and the players looked for answers, it seemed like there might be no game at all.

But up stepped Giants equipment manager Jason 'Taff' Ellery, who was the saviour to one of those problems by producing some stand-in equipment for their visitors to use – including a set of spare goalie equipment for Flames netminder Liam Hughes – while Andrew Dickson agreed to step in as the emergency back-up goalie for the visitors so they had enough players.

A ramshackle situation, but one that satisfied Elite League officials that the game could go ahead, which it finally did after a two-hour delay at 6pm, rather than the original face-off time of 4pm.

Even when the game did start the drama didn't end, with the Giants making a late change to their original line-up – Jeff Baum was included at the expense of Mark Garside – while the on-ice officiating team was limited to just one referee as Matt Thompson had to catch his flight out of Belfast.

But even despite all that, the Giants were left delighted that it did go ahead as events both in Belfast and in Manchester saw them extend their lead at the top.

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A hat-trick from winger Mark Cooper and a 20-save shutout from netminder Tyler Beskorowany – his eighth of the season – led them to a 5-0 win on home ice, with Slater Doggett and J.J. Piccinich also scoring goals on a comfortable night at the SSE Arena.

And that, combined with the second-placed Sheffield Steelers losing 4-3 in a shootout to the Manchester Storm, sees Adam Keefe's side improve to 39-9-2 on the campaign and extend their lead to three points with just two weeks of the season remaining and with a massive double-header away to the Steelers next week.

They’ll hope they don’t have to go through such drama again, but they now see a path to the Elite League title and they will hope that it ends with them lifting it – potentially as early as next Sunday at the Utilita Arena.

Back to events slightly more short-term, though, and with their opponents in such disarray, the Giants were always at a significant disadvantage and so it proved from the get-go.

It was they who started much the brighter and Piccinich wandered into the slot from where he struck the post with a finely placed wrister, before they had to kill off a tripping minor handed out to Cam Knight – indeed, it would be a fine night for the penalty kill, which ran 7-for-7.

But after playing that out, the Giants pulled ahead at 9:22 as Doggett went on a mazy skate and when he found himself in the high slot he pinged one high into the net past the reach of Hughes – 38 saves – for 1-0 and his 17th of the season.

Both teams had to kill off a penalty before the intermission as John Dunbar sat for interference for the Flames and Jordan Boucher headed off for holding, but neither would cost their respective sides.

But in the middle period Cooper would put the result to bed with the first two of his three goals on his way to his second hat-trick of the season and Piccinich would add on, too, which was the winning of the game.

Cooper's first came 6:10 in when the second line countered from their own zone and Ben Lake sent the puck to the crease where the winger was crashing the net to tap it into the empty net, and his second was essentially a carbon copy of that.

It was Flames defenceman Kyle Locke who took a double-minor for tripping and abuse of official, and with the extra skater on the ice it allowed Cooper to ghost into the crease again where he redirected Lake's pass into the back of the net.

The Giants then killed off a tripping call against Lewis Hook before Piccinich grabbed his at 19:12, snapping it low past Hughes from the left circle to make it 4-0 at the second intermission as he became the first Giant this season to hit the 40-goal mark.

The third period was one where the Giants just padded out their penalty kill stats as they played out four minors, but Beskorowany emphatically shut the door to maintain his clean sheet – not that the Flames really troubled him all that much.

And Cooper wrapped up his hat-trick just 59 seconds into that final frame shorthanded - on a high-sticking call against Kevin Raine - when he broke into the zone and fired low past Hughes for 5-0, which saw a couple of hats rain onto the ice in celebration of his 27th goal of the season.

But the loudest cheer of the night came when news filtered through that the Storm had done them a favour in Altrincham, winning in a shootout and condemning the Steelers to just one point in the title race, as the SSE Arena rose to its feet in celebration.

That means the equation is now clear for the Giants. They’ve talked for so long about how it is a best-of series against the Steelers to win the title – two wins next weekend and it’s all theirs.

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