As many of you know, I vowed to follow the Belfast Giants this season as my personal snub of Gary Bettman and his
travelling shit show insistence upon another NHL lockout. Instead of writing substandard game recaps from afar, I’ve enlisted Giants seasons ticket holder Jim Doran to give us first hand reports from the capital of Northern Ireland. This is his second report for the 2012-13 season — the first can be read here.
by Jim Doran
I should probably set the scene somewhat for anyone unfamiliar with the UK Elite Ice Hockey League. The EIHL is made up of ten teams; four from England (Coventry Blaze, Hull Stingrays, Nottingham Panthers and Sheffield Steelers); four from Scotland (Braehead Clan, Dundee Stars, Edinburgh Capitals and Fife Flyers); the Cardiff Devils from Wales; and the Belfast Giants from Northern Ireland.
This season has seen the league spilt into two conferences for the first time. The four Scottish teams along with Hull comprise the Gardiner Conference, with the Giants joining the Steelers, Blaze, Panthers and Devils in the Erhardt Conference. The new format sees each club play teams in their own conference eight times during the season (four home / four away) and play the teams in the opposing conference four times (twice home / twice away).
Teams are allowed to ice a maximum of 11 import players in any one game and due to the lack of finance around the game in the UK, very few sides are likely to build a team with more than the 11 permitted. The rest of the team rosters are made up with British trained players. Along with the two Conference titles, there is also an overall League title, the end of season play-offs and the Challenge Cup to play for over the course of the season.
(Jason’s note: We’ll get into more detail on these various ways to win in future posts, but keep in mind that sports in Europe — and in the UK in particular — tend to work differently than those in North America. If you follow international football at all, you know that top teams in the Barclay’s Premier League can also compete for the F.A. Cup, open to any team in England, and the Football League Cup, open to teams in the top four divisions. Bottom dwellers are relegated to the next league down: the Championship. Top teams in the Championship move up to the Premier League, while their last three teams are demoted to League One. And so on.)
Now to get back to business, the Giants followed up an opening night Challenge Cup loss in Braehead by starting their league campaign with a difficult double header in Nottingham. A 5-3 Saturday night win coupled with a penalty shootout loss on the Sunday saw the Giants bring home a hard earned three points out of a possible four, and fill those of us fans watching at home with hope for the new season.
That optimism dimmed ever so slightly the following Thursday when in the home opener, a game which doubled as both a league game and a Challenge Cup game (don’t ask now, we’ll explain later I said!), the Giants stumbled to a 2-1 win over a Dundee Stars squad that looks much improved over previous seasons. Two Robbie Sandrock slapshots, both on the power play, proved the difference. Defenceman Sandrock is in his second spell with the Giants, having previously played in Belfast in season 2002-03 when he became the first, and so far only, defenceman to lead the team in scoring. With three goals and one assist from his opening four games, early signs are that he could do something similar this time around.
The week ended with a difficult road trip to the House of Steel to take on the much fancied Sheffield Steelers. The home team raced out to a 4-1 lead before we had even reached the midway point of the game, but the Giants showed guts, determination and perhaps more importantly character to fight their way back into the game to tie it at 4-4 and take the game into overtime and ultimately their second penalty shootout of the season. Just like last Sunday in Nottingham however, the home team prevailed. The manner of the loss, however, and the fact the Giants were able fight their way back into the game augurs well for the season ahead.
It’s very tough, and indeed unfair to be too judgemental on a team when you have only seen them play once thus far, but with six league points out of a possible eight, things are looking promising for a good season. The only regulation loss has come in a non-league match, and the Giants sit in third spot in the table despite having only played four league matches thus far.
A little footnote to the weekend’s games: congratulations must go to Sheffield forward Ashley Tait, who collected an assist and a goal for the Steelers in their win over Nottingham on Saturday to became the all-time highest points scorer in the Elite League. Tait was born in Canada in 1975, but grew up in England, and has played his entire career for teams in the UK. In a sport that is often knocked for its high level of imported players, it is nice to see a British-trained player move to the top of the highest points scorers table.