If Cardiff could take a point from its trip to Coventry, which was due to finish just as the Giants gathered for the team’s annual awards night at a Belfast hotel, the Devils would complete an unprecedented ‘three-peat’. Instead, a win for the Blaze sent the title across the Irish Sea as the Giants secured the crown by virtue of two more regulation time victories over the course of the 60-game campaign.
Coventry, which had secured its play-off place the previous evening, had rather less riding on the outcome of the game. That didn’t stop the Blaze making a fast start, with Nikolai Bryhnysveen giving the home team a fourth-minute lead. The second stanza began in similar fashion as David Clements doubled Coventry’s advantage on 21:01 before GB international Sam Duggan pulled a goal back for Cardiff. That was as good as it got for the Devils; Thom Flodqvist saw his penalty shot hit the piping before Ben Lake, another GB international, wrapped it up with an empty-net goal. Cardiff’s defeat prompted jubilation in a Belfast hotel where the Giants were gathering for their presentation night – just in time to learn they had scooped the biggest prize of the season.
Head coach Adam Keefe was on his way to the awards night as the action played out in Coventry. “I had the longest 25-minute taxi ride during the third period,” he told Giants TV. “Thankfully I got here with a minute left, just in time to see the eruption from our fan base and our players.
“What a special moment. It’ll probably never happen again at the awards night when we have our fans, our entire staff and every player together. Just to hear that noise... what a feeling!”
The party continued on Wednesday when the championship trophy was presented at a special ceremony in the Belfast City Hall. Lord Mayor of Belfast, Deirdre Hargey, paid tribute to the team’s contribution to the city’s sporting life since it was established in 2000. “When some said it wouldn’t last, you built a sport in our great city,” she said.
He reflected on a dramatic triumph in his final campaign. “We knew it was an outside shot and its obviously difficult when things aren’t in your hands but big props to Coventry, they did a job for us tonight. We’ve been in situations like this before but never right down to the last day of the season. This was a special one, it’s a nice way to go out at the end of my career.
“When that final whistle went the place went crazy. It was great to share it with all the fans. Especially after [my final league game] last night, which was really emotional for me, this night’s one to share with my teammates and all the fans who made it here.”
The last-day drama seemed an unlikely prospect earlier in the season, though. At one point Cardiff enjoyed an 11-point lead. Belfast went on a storming run, going 19-4-1 over its last 24 games but even as recently as March 22 the gap was still four points with both teams having four games to play. However, a surprise 2-3 loss for the Devils in Dundee opened the door – and Belfast did everything to keep the race alive. A 5-1 win over Sheffield was followed by a run of three games in four days to finish the campaign. That brought a 7-2 win at Coventry followed by home victories over Fife (7-0) and Dundee (6-4) to put the Giants on top of the pile after Saturday evening’s play. The Devils still had their destiny in their own hands – and a 9-1 thrashing of Milton Keynes Lightning on Saturday suggested that Andrew Lord’s team was in no mood to stumble at the last – but that fateful trip to Coventry ended Cardiff’s title dream at the last. “Gut-wrenching” was the coach’s verdict, telling BBC Wales: “You work nine months, day-in, day-out, and to lose on a tie-break is just brutal.”
The championship, Belfast’s fifth, completes a double after the Giants defended its Challenge Cup with an overtime victory against Guildford Flames early in March. The team also got to the final stage of the IIHF Continental Cup, hosting January’s final four and missing out on the trophy following a shootout defeat to Arlan Kokshetau of Kazakhstan in the last game of the tournament. WIth Arlan unable to take its place in the Champions Hockey League, Belfast was invited to take part as Continental Cup runner-up and will make its first appearance in the competition. Cardiff will join the Giants by virtue of taking second place in the Elite League this season.
Before that, though, the two rivals have one more trophy to contest at home. Keefe and his men will attempt to complete a sweep of Britain’s major hockey trophies by winning the play-offs, with Cardiff looking to ensure it picks up some hardware for the third consecutive season. Ironically, the Giants kick off with a two-legged knock-out contest against Coventry. The play-off final four takes place on the weekend of April 13-14 and Belfast will be hoping to become the first team to do the ‘treble’ since Nottingham Panthers in 2013 and the first ever to win the three big prizes plus its Conference.