Belfast Giants 1-0 Cardiff Devils
After an excellent month in January, the Belfast Giants needed netminder Shane Owen to carry over his form into February's opener against the Cardiff Devils.
The Ontario native did so and then some, having arguably his best game in teal thus far in keeping a 16-save shutout to backstop the Giants to a crucial 1-0 win over their rivals on Saturday night to take the first game of their weekend double-header.
His team backed him up on offense, although only just, Elgin Pearce's powerplay marker 5:41 into the second period - his ninth of the season for the Giants - the deciding goal between the two teams.
The winger managed to get himself free in the slot and when a loose puck dribbled out of a melee at the crease, Pearce eagerly rapped in the one-timer past Ben Bowns - 18 saves - for the game-winner.
"Thought it was a great character win," praised Giants head coach Adam Keefe.
"We knew it was going to be a play-off type atmosphere, as you've seen before any time we've played Cardiff here, and it was going to be a tough game.
"I actually thought it was a great game of hockey. For us, that's the type of game we want to see. Back and forth, tight coverage across the ice, great game of hockey."
It was all down to the man between the pipes for Belfast that helped them pick up the win, Owen coming up with a couple of massive stops under pressure at key times to maintain the hosts' advantage throughout.
The biggest of the lot came in the dying stages as the Devils piled on the pressure, and when the puck somehow dropped to Mike McNamee on the doorstep, the defenceman could hardly believe it when the puck didn't find the twine, Owen deflecting it away.
The goaltender had also come up with a huge stop on Devils captain Joey Martin in the middle frame shortly after Pearce's strike, the forward going on the two-on-one breakaway but only finding the pad of the unbeatable Owen.
"That's what you strive to do, you strive to get clean sheets. I don't like getting scored on, no goalie likes getting scored on. Whenever you get a shutout, it feels great," said Owen.
"But I have to put it to the team, the team played brilliantly defensively. We played so well, guys blocking shots all night, it makes my job so much easier."
Keefe added: "I thought Owey was great tonight, he came up with some big saves when we needed him to in the first and second.
"The defense as a whole, the five-man unit, was pretty tight. They didn't allow many shots, so it was a pretty tight coverage game. When we did allow some opportunities, Owey was there to save us."
That allowed the Giants to hold out for the narrowest of victories, improving to 24-13-2 on the season and closing the gap to the Sheffield Steelers at the top of the standings to seven points as the league leaders lost in Nottingham.
It's the first time since December 28 that the Giants have won three games in a row, and they will aim to make it four-in-a-row for the first time since November 3 when they take on the Devils in the second game of the double-header tomorrow afternoon.
It was a huge night for the Giants' special teams too, with their 4-for-4 penalty kill a huge reason why they were able to close out the game with the victory, while the powerplay obviously came up the game-winner in the second period.
"We got guys diving all over the place. Sometimes they hit you, sometimes they don't, but tonight they were hitting not just me but everyone else that was sacrificing themselves," praised defenceman Kevin Raine.
"Anything that did get through, Owey was there to have our backs. It was a special effort, a 60-minute effort, from everybody, both special teams and five-on-five."
The Giants started the brighter of the two teams, with Brian Ward firing a warning shot early by tipping Ryan Lowney's shot onto the post, before their powerplay failed to connect with Shaone Morrisonn off for roughing.
Belfast then themselves had to play out a pair of penalties of their own, killing minor calls on Bobby Farnham (interference) and Ward (tripping), although they did get somewhat fortunate when Matt Pope fed Matthew Myers on a two-on-one and the GB centre missed the cage altogether.
It was a lively start to the second period from the Giants that saw them gain the initiative despite again going scoreless on a Morrisonn hooking call, and then Pearce firing forcing Bowns into a nice stop after breaking with Ciaran Long, before Pearce put them ahead on the powerplay.
Two more impressive kills began the final frame for the hosts, battling through a Pearce high sticking call and a highly dubious holding call on Lowney to maintain their one-goal advantage.
Indeed, they were closer to doubling their lead on the kill than they were to being pegged back, Matt Pelech deciding to go solo by taking the puck all the way from behind the Giants' net and battling to the crease at the other end, forcing Bowns into a big save on the backhand.
Try as they might, Cardiff couldn't find any way past the resolute Owen, even with Bowns pulled for the extra skater in the final 39 seconds, and the Giants were able to close out the evening for a vital two points at home.
The two sides do it all again on Sunday afternoon (4pm), with the Giants knowing that one more win over their title rivals would firmly catapult them back into a genuine battle for the title.
"It's massive. It's just as big as tonight's game," said Owen. "We're going to have to be ready to go from puck drop. We're looking forward to it."