Mental mistakes holding Giants back, laments head coach Keefe
How long does it take for a game to get away from you? In the Belfast Giants' case, it was 70 seconds.
At 3-0 down in their Champions League clash with Swedish heavyweights Lulea heading into the third period, the Giants had dragged themselves back into the equation thanks to a brace of powerplay goals from the Liams, Morgan and Reddox.
The SSE Arena crowd was bouncing. The bench was roaring. The Lulea players were staring in disbelief that it had gotten to this point.
But in those 70 seconds, all of that flipped on its head once again.
Despite having all the momentum, the Giants managed to allow Lulea the odd man rush and Isac Brannstrom found Robin Kovacs for the back door play to restore the two-goal lead. Then Petter Emanuelsson spun in the slot and fired top shelf on Shane Owen to send the Giants back to square one.
The crowd was deflated. The Giants bench was silent. The Lulea players, in their steely determination, fist bumped on the other side and prepared for the next face-off.
Game. Set. Match.
"What we talked about before the game was you can't take a shift off. Mentally, you can't take a play off against this team. We had some guys that weren't there mentally for us tonight and that cost us," lamented Giants head coach Adam Keefe.
"That's just the truth, that's the honest truth. If we played for the full 60 and played to the best of our ability and were switched on the whole time, we could have maybe climbed back into that game.
"We didn't do it. We let them regain the two-goal lead and that was tough. It sunk the energy that was created by the two powerplay goals."
This is not to take away from what was a much improved performance from the Giants. For long periods they battled toe-for-toe with a side that plays in a league that is considered several rungs above the Elite League. Their third period fight back was admirable.
Unfortunately, however, these mental switch offs are nothing new for this year's Giants side. We've already seen it in their three domestic road games this season, where they've been tied heading into the final period in all three and lost all of them. Full 60 minute performances have been the exception rather than the rule.
In Dundee last Saturday, the Giants had forged ahead midway through the final period to hold a one-goal lead, however they still couldn't get over the line on the road as the Stars scored twice late on to steal the two points at the death.
While the scoreline against Lulea wasn't as tight as those road losses have been, the mental slips are still as costly.
At 1-0 down, a defensive zone turnover from Morgan allowed Juhani Tyrvainen to rip home a one-timer for the second. An inability to track the trail skater saw Austin Farley score the third. Jean Dupuy taking a minor for a face-off violation led to Arttu Ilomaki ripping home the final goal of the night.
Given the quality of Lulea, it's easy to write those off as being out-skated and out-played by a superior team. But the slack plays have crept into the league performances, and that is where they must stop.
"There's a lot of frustration right now," admits Keefe. "There are a lot of guys struggling to find the back of the net right now. Losing on the road a few times in a row. This is a stressful environment here.
"This is a tough league to compete in and you can't really afford to lose. That seems to be a tough thing for guys to mentally wrap their heads around. It doesn't matter which league you're coming from, when you come to this league you can't afford to drop a point because it could cost you the league or it could cost you a (knockout) berth in the Challenge Cup.
"It does wear on guys mentally. That being said, this is the league we're in. They need to figure it out and compete consistently. If we can find consistency in this league then we'll be a very good team."
Finding that consistency is proving elusive, though, with the Giants still looking for their first four-point weekend of the season. Their only back-to-back wins have come six days apart - shutting out Nottingham on September 22 and then beating Fife on September 28.
"Nobody has a magic wand they can fling and make everything okay. Consistency has to be earned in this league. You have to show up, compete, prepare well and be switched on," explains Keefe.
"We talked about being switched on for a full 60 minutes tonight and we weren't. That's why we lost 6-3. If we were switched on mentally and making the right reads at the right times, it would have been a much tighter game.
"In tight games I like our chances, but when we're chasing a team like Lulea to get some goals back, suddenly guys start to do too much and we create a few more turnovers. It's not the way we want to play."
The way they want to play this season has been evident on occasion. They've potted seven goals against Fife already this season, and a further six against the Glasgow Clan too. They've shut-out the Nottingham Panthers and have even claimed the scalp of Czech side Bili Tygri Liberec.
Offensively, the Giants have finally seemed to find their spark after a few weeks where a snake-bitten offense was causing them problems. Morgan continues to be the pleasant surprise of the season with 17 points in 13 games, while Curtis Hamilton has eight goals and Brian Ward has six.
But the slack plays that are costing them dearly so far are outweighing the good work being done elsewhere, and there is no doubt they need to make improvements in how they finish games given their third period struggles on the road.
Saturday's game against the Glasgow Clan is a must-win if they want to qualify for the knockouts of the Challenge Cup, otherwise their title defence will come to an end at the first hurdle. To ensure that doesn't happen, fixing those mental lapses that have plagued them early in the season is key.
"There were a lot of positives to (the Lulea game). I thought for long stretches we were the better team. It's tough but we'll take the positives and apply them at the weekend," claims the head coach.
"Saturday is a do-or-die game and we haven't won on the road yet. It's on the road, so no better time to start."
Power to the play
One of the most pleasing performances of the third period in particular was the powerplay, which dragged them back into the game with two quick strikes.
Patryk Wronka connected with Liam Morgan at the back door for the first to get the Giants on the board, before Liam Reddox was on hand to deposit a rebound off a Jordan Smotherman shot.
Morgan's strike snapped a three-game streak without a goal on the one-up, with the powerplay going 2-for-9 on the night as Lulea ran into penalty trouble.
Most notably, it gave Belfast a significant lift on the bench as they tried to pull off a miracle comeback, although they ultimately left themselves too much to do.
"It just shows what a powerplay can do for a bench if you connect," added Keefe. "It can change a game. It needs to improve."
Reddox on the rise
Having gone ten games without getting a goal, like London buses, two came along at once for Liam Reddox as he finally broke his duck in a Giants jersey.
The left winger grabbed the second of those powerplay goals before adding the Giants' third by going on the wraparound and forcing the puck past David Rautio on the angle.
"You could see it lifted him, and it lifted the whole bench as well, and that's probably why he was able to go on and get the second one as well," said Keefe.
Reddox now has six points on the season through 11 games - with four assists to go with his double - and appears to have found some real chemistry with Jean Dupuy and Bobby Farnham on the third line.
Despite not being on the gamesheet much, Reddox has been influential for the Giants in other ways, getting to the hard areas in front of the net for screens and doing the hard work along the boards.
"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," added Reddox.
Berglund's beloved Belfast
The city of Belfast continues to earn rave reviews from visitors, with Lulea head coach Thomas Berglund the latest to admit he was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality.
Before him, Augsburg head coach Tray Tuomie was also effusive in his praise for Belfast, while visiting Elite League players have also described it as one of their favourite road trips.
Now Berglund has joined the list of those who have been impressed by Northern Ireland.
"Perfect. Couldn't have been better. It's a nice city to be in and I didn't expect it to be this nice. We'll be having a couple of Guinness as well tonight!" laughed the Swede.
Belfast Telegraph Digital