Scintillating first period leads Belfast Giants to handy road win at Blaze
Coventry Blaze 2-7 Belfast Giants
Adam Keefe will be hoping he can bottle the Belfast Giants' first period performance in Coventry and bring it out for every game he coaches going forward.
Needing to win all three remaining games to apply pressure to the Cardiff Devils at the top of the Elite League standings, the Giants went out and played as if the pressure didn't apply to themselves, tearing apart a hapless Blaze outfit with ease.
Patrick Dwyer had a first period hat-trick, profiting from some pretty lacklustre defence from the home side, and Jonathan Boxill scooped in just his seventh goal of the season as Belfast tore up their recent road form book and turned on the style.
Coming into the game with just two wins from their previous nine games away from Belfast, the Giants paid no heed to that record and ended their road trips in fine fashion, improving to 43-13-2 and cutting the gap at the top of the standings to just two points.
They didn't have it all their own way though, Alex Nikiforuk's goal with 3:07 left in the second period and Ben Lake's tip-in on a Justin Hache shot from the blue line just 1:05 into the third saw the hosts apply plenty of pressure in the third period.
However, in their attempts to be aggressive in searching for another goal, the Blaze pulled backup netminder Jordan Hedley and Darcy Murphy added his 46th goal of the season, a franchise record, with 4.48 left to go in the game to settle the result.
On another night, Dwyer's treble would have been far more impressive, but such was the ease and speed with which he got it, by the time he completed his hat-trick, taking his season tally to 29 goals, the game had long been dead and buried.
The third came late in the opening stanza, the centre battling away in the slot and forcing the turnover off Nicolai Bryhnisveen before finishing backhanded over Matt Hackett in the Blaze net for his treble with 46 seconds left in the first.
That one came on the man disadvantage with Boxill off having instigated a fight with Kevin Noble for an excessive hit on Lewis Hook, and netminder Hackett - who would finish with just 9 saves on 14 shots - expressed his frustration with his defencemen by smashing his stick off both the crossbar and boards as he made his way off for the first intermission.
They were doing little to help him in the opening 20 minutes. Dwyer had forged the Giants ahead after just 5:41 when he was allowed to bat the puck out of the air and in five-hole at the crease after the skaters in front of him failed to close down Darcy Murphy coming in from behind the net.
That was compounded when Dwyer added a second at 9:16, Murphy with the deft touch down the boards to send Blair Riley into the offensive zone and he had Dwyer on the end of his sauce pass for the back door finish.
Things could have been even better for Belfast as Jordan Smotherman was denied by the netminder after carving his way up the middle with some nice stick handling, but Boxill did make them pay when he got his stick on a rebound at 13:32, dishing it over the pads of the sprawling Hackett after a Blaze defenceman tipped Jonathan Ferland's centring pass on his own goalie.
Hackett lasted just 1:17 into the second period, the netminder beaten for a fifth time when Ferland got one as he stabbed in a rebound at the crease from Curtis Leonard's point shot, with young backup Hedley taking over between the pipes.
Having been so quiet up to the point Hedley entered the game, all of a sudden the Blaze exploded offensively, and when Ross Venus controlled and fed Nikiforuk at the back door for their opener late in the second, it flipped a switch.
But when Blaze head coach Danny Stewart went aggressive by pulling Hedley on the powerplay with 7:01 remaining, when Dwyer headed off for a slash, it allowed Murphy to finish into the empty cage to set the franchise record, although it did come after Jordan Smotherman saw an empty net effort of his own crack against the post.
That ensured the penalty kill would finish a very impressive 4-for-4 on the night, and there was even time for Colin Shields to end the game on the perfect note when he tapped in Ferland's cross-crease pass with 4:29 remaining to cap off the week in which he announced his retirement, and ensure this title race will go all the way to the wire.
The Giants are back in action on Friday night back at the SSE Arena when they take on the Fife Flyers (7pm) before welcoming the Dundee Stars for their final game of the regular season on Saturday (7pm).
Belfast Telegraph Digital