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Stalled comeback: Kevin Saurette has recovered from an injury but remains short of fitness

Stalled comeback: Kevin Saurette has recovered from an injury but remains short of fitness

Stalled comeback: Kevin Saurette has recovered from an injury but remains short of fitness

Steve Thornton has claimed that the Belfast Giants' fight to retain the Elite League title has been so difficult because every one of their rivals has been out to get them.

This time last year the Giants skated out at the Odyssey Arena as Elite League champions.

Just 12 months later, and with Thornton in charge after replacing Paul Adey last summer, they find themselves in fifth place and seven points behind the leaders of what the coach has described as "a different league".

"The league is better than it was last season," said Thornton ahead of two crunch home games against the Edinburgh Capitals tonight (7pm) and the Sheffield Steelers tomorrow (4pm).

"The number of imports is up - the level of the imports is up too - and after what we did last season every team built a roster with the intention of stopping the Belfast Giants.

"We are different too. We had 15 of last season's league-winning team come back, but only a handful of them have had anything like the same season this time - and they would hold their hands up to that.

"Our top two players from last season have been out for almost the whole year.

"I had hoped to have Stephen Murphy back by now, but he's not ready just yet. And although we did get Kevin Saurette back last weekend, it's going to take him time to get up to game shape - that doesn't happen overnight."

All of this has led to weeks and months of frustration for Thornton.

Somehow, however, despite winning just once in their last seven games, the Giants aren't completely out of the title race.

With three home games in the space of a week, there is an opportunity to take advantage if the other teams slip up.

That means it is now about results rather than performances for Thornton.

"The one thing that has pleased me over the last few games is that we've been playing well," he said.

"The hardest thing to take is probably the fact that when we were on a winning run over Christmas, we were winning without playing at our best.

"When we came up against Nottingham, Coventry and Braehead, we played well and created chances, but we didn't have the execution in front of goal.

"There has been an inconsistency in the type of goals that we have been conceding too.

"Then you look at a couple of games where we conceded goals with just seconds left, and a 1-0 loss in Braehead.

"We could very well have won those games, there's no question about that. The extra points from those matches would have put us right up there at the top.

"Do I have an explanation for it? No, only that it happens at every level of every sport.

"If we'd had Kevin Saurette in the line-up, hitting 40 goals, those one-goal games would have been different."

But what might have been if the same players had performed at the same level and if the injury-free run that Paul Adey enjoyed had been repeated is not of any interest to Thornton.

He cannot change the past, so he is instead focused on the future and his quest to ensure that whatever happens in the league, the Giants do not finish the season empty-handed.

"We are at the point now that we talked about at the start of the season when we said that whoever wins the league will lose no more than 13 or 14 games," said Thornton.

"We have lost 15 and it's out of our hands now - we need some help. It's not unwinnable from here, but we will need to win every game.

"The three things that we are focusing on now though are getting a healthy roster, getting some confidence back and trying to peak in time for the play-offs."

With the arrival of Nathan Robinson and Saurette's return from injury, Thornton now has two extra imports on his roster.

He intends to select on a game-by-game basis, and the players who miss out against the Edinburgh Capitals are likely to be back to face Sheffield tomorrow.

"We will be juggling things to try to get guys to peak fitness," said Thornton.

"If they are rested it is because they need rest, not because of performances."

Belfast Telegraph