Slick Belfast Giants take a major stride in battle for title
Belfast Giants 2-0 Cardiff Devils
The Belfast Giants picked the perfect time to produce their best performance of the season so far as they cut the gap between themselves and the Cardiff Devils at the top of the Elite League table to just four points.
And with three matches in hand, as well as five more games to play before the first weekend of the new year is out, the Giants are right back in the thick of the title race.
The 2-0 scoreline doesn't even begin to tell the full story of a high-octane contest. While goaltender Stephen Murphy added another shut-out to his club-record tally, Brandon Benedict and Matt Nickerson added the goals.
The margin of victory could - and probably should - have been greater.
As well as Giants player-coach Derrick Walser rattling Ben Bowns' pipework, there were two goals ruled out, the first because the whistle had already gone and the second midway through the game when referee Paul Staniforth determined that the puck hadn't actually crossed the line.
In the end it didn't matter as Murphy's outstanding display meant that Benedict's goal would have been enough, even without Nickerson's late empty netter.
Murphy was on top form from the start, making an early save from Carl Hudson as both teams started strongly.
The Giants had Craig Peacock sent to the box for the first penalty of the game, but still looked the stronger team on the penalty kill, bringing a couple of saves out of Bowns in the Cardiff goal.
Benedict broke the deadlock bang on the 13-minute mark when he finished off a slick Giants move.
They passed their way up the ice and after Darryl Lloyd linked with Adam Keefe Benedict tapped in his seventh goal of the season at the back door.
Mike Wilson was close to doubling the lead twice before the end of the first period, but on both occasions he found Bowns equal to his efforts.
Darryl Lloyd shot straight at the Cardiff goaltender early in the second period before a scramble in front of the Devils net resulted in what the Giants thought was a second goal, but despite the celebrations on and off the ice, a whistle just before the puck went into the net cut them short.
Bowns came under more intense pressure during a Giants' powerplay, but the home forwards still couldn't find a way past him.Walser did, but the puck hit a post and seconds later the crowd were on their feet again, but this time the puck hadn't gone into the net.
The intensity in the Giants performance didn't show any signs of letting up even in the third period.
James Desmarais and Chris Higgins both missed when well placed.
A penalty call on Mike Radja gave the Devils a late powerplay. Bowns was pulled as they went for broke and after Kris Beech cleared the puck Nickerson collected and fired it into the empty net with 21 seconds to go to seal the win.