Unlike the Belfast Giants, the Cardiff Devils have taken a long, winding road to the 2021-22 Elite League Playoff Final. They’ve experienced plenty of adversity this season: injuries on defence, a crushing Challenge Cup final defeat, and a coaching change all since the turn of the year.
Brodie Dupont, a former third-round selection by the New York Rangers, didn’t sign in Cardiff expecting to end the campaign behind the Devils’ bench. He’s still only 35, has plenty of hockey left to play, and completed his switch to the Elite League under the pretence that Jarrod Skalde would be his season-long coach.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Dupont said of his wild ride into the coaching world. “I anticipated that I would start coaching after I retired from playing, so I’ve always been well prepared. I’ve been getting ready for a bunch of years now: just jotting down notes about things I like and don’t like.”
Although the Canadian is still familiarizing himself with life behind the bench, his players – teammates just over a month ago – have certainly got his back.
Despite fumbling a 2-0 lead in the third period of their semi-final against the Guildford Flames, the Devils roared into today’s final with a late power play marker and an even later penalty kill.
While it’s still too early to define the Dupont Way, the foundations that underpin his approach are clear. Under the Manitoban player-coach, Cardiff work hard and wreak havoc.
There’s a sense that watching his players block shots, get sticks in the lanes, and make the most of playoff-style officiating is more satisfying to Dupont than when they pull off audacious tricks with the puck.
Cole Sandford scored in remarkable fashion in yesterday’s semi-final, sliding the puck beyond Kevin Lindskoug from his knees. When asked to comment on the strike, Dupont talked up his team’s efforts before commenting on the skill play.
“That whole line has been great for us all year: they can do some special things with the puck,” he said. “We were pretty happy to see it go in – but he’s got that ability, he’s got that scoring touch.”
If the Devils are to reign supreme in the Elite League Playoff Final, they will need their forwards to carry their form into today’s clash with Belfast.
Adam Keefe: ‘We’ve got to get the job done’
For the first time since 2012, the EIHL could have a Triple Crown winner on its hands. Belfast are in pole position to win out in the Elite League Playoff Final, buoyed by yesterday’s shutout win over the Dundee Stars.
Following his team’s semi-final success, Giants head coach Adam Keefe told reporters he had no preference over which side his team would face in the grand finale.
“Cardiff defend really hard, have a very good goaltender, and some top-quality scoring,” he explained yesterday. “They’re very dangerous on the power play and we’ll prepare accordingly. But really, the focus is on us and making sure we play the way that we know we can, and I thought we did during the semi-final.”
Belfast breezed past Dundee to reach the Elite League Playoff Final, winning 6-0 in what became a one-sided affair after the first power break.
“I thought it was a great team performance and we’re going to need that again [in the final],” Keefe said of his team’s performance versus the Stars. “It’s been a next man up mentality for us for the majority of the season: we’ve got to get the job done.”
Since the turn of the year, Belfast have established themselves as the league’s strongest team at five-on-five. They controlled their in-season series against the Sheffield Steelers, ultimately tying up the regular-season title at Utilita Arena.
While the Giants’ offensive stars have soaked up most of the limelight, it’s his squad’s overall mentality that Keefe is most impressed by.
“Throughout the season – but especially over the last three or four weeks – we spoke about recognising the opportunity we have [to win a Grand Slam],” he said after Belfast punched their ticket to the Elite League Playoff Final.
“Before we won the league title, we said ‘we’re now in playoff [mode]’. It’s not just about the goals scored [in the postseason], it’s about those little blocks, chips out of the zone, those little plays that people don’t usually place a lot of stock in – but I certainly do, and I think everyone does in our locker room.”
The 37-year-old added: “There were a few shifts tonight when we were under pressure and guys had to block shots to relieve the pressure. Going back to the back-to-back versus Sheffield: we blocked a lot of shots and saw some real team commitment. We’re going to need that again if we want to enjoy success.”
Aside from receiving high-quality goaltender from Tyler Beskorowany, who has been a calming influence throughout the playoffs, the Giants’ defensive approach is premised on aggressively pursuing the puck on both sides of the red line.
“Sometimes we made bad decisions on the puck – but that’s because [Belfast] have constant pressure on it,” Omar Pacha said of Dundee’s semi-final loss. “The Giants are the standard that all teams in the league have to raise to: they’re well-coached, have a lot of talent, a lot of depth everywhere in their line-up.
“If the Stars want to learn how to win a trophy, it’s about having that consistency in our play. That’s what we missed tonight – we made a few individual mistakes and the momentum shifted.”
As a result, Belfast enter the Elite League Playoff Final as favourites. They’re one win away from snatching a historic treble and are in pole position to clinch it.
Elite League Playoff Final is Win-Win Situation for Cardiff Devils
Today’s final could come to represent a sliding doors moment for Cardiff and Belfast.
If the Giants complete their Grand Slam effort, they will enter 2022-23 as the UK’s premier hockey club. They’re well-coached, have a growing class of impressive, homegrown youngsters, and have all the components they need to make a solid run in the Champions Hockey League.
For the Devils, the final represents an opportunity to wipe the slate clean: to put their parting of the ways with Skalde behind them and to focus on the future. It also provides Dupont with a win-win situation – it’s difficult to critique his work behind the bench regardless of how today’s contest pans out.
“I felt like I had a good idea of how [coaching would work] but I didn’t anticipate the stress level,” Cardiff’s young coach said yesterday. “When [the coaching change] happened, we just asked the guys to be patient with me and told them that I’d do my best to prepare them the best that I know how. They’ve responded really well.”
When asked about how he would get ready for the Elite League Playoff Final, he added: “We’re pretty familiar with Belfast, it’s just a case of watching their game from tonight [because] we already watched a couple of previous matches coming into [Playoff Finals Weekend].
“It’s more about us, getting the guys ready to go, and trying to address a couple of things. Making sure the guys believe in themselves and that we’re confident and coming in with that swagger that we can beat them is the most important thing.”
Cardiff have faced plenty of adversity this season and won’t mind heading into the final as underdogs. With a place in the Continental Cup on the line, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The pressure, then, is on Keefe and Belfast. Will the Giants capitalise on a huge opportunity to ink their names in Elite League history?