Belfast Telegraph

"The guys took a step in the right direction tonight": Belfast Giants' commitment indicates better days on horizon

Belfast Giants winger Patryk Wronka battles with Luleå centre Jack Connolly in Tuesday night's final Champions League group game at the Coop Norrbotten Arena (Simon Eliasson/Bildbyrån)
Belfast Giants winger Patryk Wronka battles with Luleå centre Jack Connolly in Tuesday night's final Champions League group game at the Coop Norrbotten Arena (Simon Eliasson/Bildbyrån)
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

LULEÅ, Swe -- Sometimes the key statistics in games aren't the ones that your eye is drawn to first, such as shots or hits or special team percentages.

So forget that the Belfast Giants were peppered by 39 shots across the three periods in Luleå. Forget that they themselves were limited to just the 12. Forget that the penalty kill conceded two in going 2-for-4, and that the powerplay was a similarly average 0-for-2. Indeed, forget that they lost 4-0 and are out of the Champions League.

Instead, the Giants will, rightly so, place the focus on some of the periphery stats, particularly on defence.

Shane Owen made 17 saves in the third period alone. The defence in front of him helped out immensely by making a staggering 27 blocks. Despite being two of the key blockers, Kevin Raine (21:37 TOI) and Matt Pelech (20:23) were both on the ice for over a third of the game.

In a game that had nothing riding on it, where Belfast's result had no bearing on their progression and where they were already 4-0 down, players were throwing themselves in front of shots to keep the scoreline as low as possible.

Curtis Leonard was the unfortunate one of the group, taking one in the ankle that limited him for the rest of the game - according to head coach Adam Keefe he was "fine" afterwards - but it was a selfless performance from the men in teal from Owen out.

"I don’t know how some of the guys do it, they block some shots where they don't have a lot of padding, so cheers to them!" said the netminder, who made 35 saves, after the game.

It's a reflection of how much this team are hurting right now. Going into Tuesday's final group game as a dead rubber was not what they had hoped at the start of the campaign, particularly after the first two games.

The seven game losing streak - now eight - away from home spoke for itself too. Despite coming close on both nights in Glasgow, they are still awaiting that first W on the road, and the frustration is palpable. It's not for a lack of trying, as 94 shots across the two games against the Clan will attest to, but for some reason they're still not there yet.

Tuesday was an indication that they're not going to take it lying down, however. In a defiant display, they continually frustrated the Swedes who, despite controlling possession and having extended spells in the Giants' defensive zone, were limited to shots from the edges for the most part.

"4-0 game, guys are blocking shots in the last few minutes, putting their bodies on the line. I don’t know what more you can ask for from that group of guys in there," says captain Pelech.

"Guys are blocking shots in a game where the outcome didn’t matter in the group stages and we’re down 4-0. That’s the kind of team we have, that’s the kind of character we have in the room. That’s the kind of defence we play."

Head coach Adam Keefe added: "It was going to be tough in the third period, and it was. I was just happy with guys sticking with it and competing right to the buzzer. You saw guys still blocking pucks when the game was away from us.

"They’re competing here. There’s no doubt we’re in a bit of a rut right now and the only way out is through hard work and digging our own way out of this rut. The guys took a step in the right direction tonight."

The problem is the road performances in the Champions League are not translating to the league, where it really matters for the Giants. Their best display away from home this season was undoubtedly in Augsburg, where they ran the Panther mighty close, but since then they've lost in Manchester, and rather tamely in Fife and Dundee.

The double-header in Glasgow was better, admittedly, but was still missing the finishing touch. In Luleå they were always going to struggle for offense, although they had enough chances to make you think they could have sneaked one past David Rautio to at least take something back to Belfast.

It may just be one result that's needed to get them over the line. It may be more than that. But the challenge for the Giants is finding a way to bring their European compete level to their domestic games. Do that, and it's not an outlandish claim to say that this team will be competing for the title at the end of the season.

"That’s all it takes. All we need to do is close out a game on the road. It’s a mentality and everyone needs to buy in," claims winger Bobby Farnham.

"We’re in games. Lapses here and there seem to cost us and we’re not finishing the chances we do get. We’ve had opportunities to put teams away on the road and we haven’t done it. We’ve outplayed a lot of teams on the road," points out Pelech.

"Going forward we need to be confident. We need to be able to finish our chances, and if we can’t finish our chances then we need to bear down and be able to win 1-0, 2-1. Bear down defensively and do that as well. It’s got to be 60 minutes, sometimes 65 minutes, every night."

Manchester roll into town this weekend for a double-header. There's a score to settle after the 2-1 overtime defeat in their first league game of the season, and they're determined not to make it back-to-back league losses after dropping one in Glasgow.

But this is a critical juncture now for this team. With Europe behind them, they have no more 'big' games to get up for and try to use as momentum, but that doesn't mean the big games are behind them. They have three games at the SSE Arena before their next away trip, and they need to start ramping up the performances before taking to the road again.

It mightn't be a defining moment of the Giants' season quite yet, but if things don't improve quickly then that moment will come sooner than they'd hope. Their bodies on the line mentality in Luleå was a positive start. Now it needs to come to fruition in the form of points.

"We’re on the right track," insists Pelech. "I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I do think we’re on the right track."

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