Elite League Takeaways: Devils’ Shootout Win Blows Title Race Open

Stephen Dixon, Cardiff Devils (Image; Dean Woolley)
Stephen Dixon, Cardiff Devils (Image; Dean Woolley)

After a hectic week of action in the Elite League, the title race between the Sheffield Steelers, Belfast Giants, and Cardiff Devils is heating up. Just two points separate the EIHL’s top two clubs, with the same margin separating the Manchester Storm and Dundee Stars in their race for the final playoff berth.

What’s more, an exciting week of Challenge Cup drama awaits. The final four will contest their single elimination matches on Wednesday, it’s win or go home for Sheffield, Cardiff, Belfast, and the Nottingham Panthers.

Anyway, before we shift our focus to the magic of the cup – let’s reflect on three major takeaways from last week’s play in the Elite League.

Shootout Drama Tightens EIHL Title Race

For the first time in a while, the Steelers look vulnerable. Aaron Fox’s side fell to defeat twice in three matches last week, dropping points to Cardiff and the Glasgow Clan. Sheffield’s only win (7-2 @ Manchester) came on Saturday evening, in a game that was abandoned due to a medical emergency in the crowd at the Altrincham Ice Dome.

Thankfully, and most importantly, the fan who fell ill during the game is back home, as confirmed by the Manchester Storm the following morning.

On the surface, Sheffield’s three-point week doesn’t seem that damaging, they’d built up a hefty lead at the top and were scoring goals at will. But the level of competition in the Elite League is high this year, and the Giants are waiting to pounce.

“I thought that was arguably one of the best 60s we’ve played this year,” Fox said following his team’s shootout loss to Cardiff, “but we didn’t find a way to win it, which is disappointing.

“At the end of the day, we can all look ourselves in the mirror and know we played a heck of a game tonight. We missed a couple of empty nets, hit a couple of posts, put a couple over the bar, their goalie Mac [Carruth] played a heck of a game.”

The shot count on Sunday was astounding. Carruth made 44 saves for the Devils, dragging his team to a vital win on the road. There’s no doubt the Steelers will bounce back, but they will rue missed opportunities versus Cardiff.

Belfast Giants Close the Gap at the Top

“Yeh, that was a big one, an emotional one on the bench,” Adam Keefe said of his team’s shootout win over the Panthers on Sunday. “That 20 minutes at the end, that’s how we expect ourselves to play, the standard we try to hold ourselves to.

“We had an alright game, we just weren’t executing well enough to capitalise on our chances and we gave them a bit too much life with two goals in 15 seconds, that hurts. But the third period was more of what we expected and I was really happy the guys stuck with it to the final buzzer and were rewarded.”

It was a wild contest at Motorpoint Arena. The Panthers entered first intermission with a two-goal lead, with Robbie Baillargeon scoring on 15:41 and 15:53. Scott Conway pulled one back for the travelling side with 12 minutes to play, setting up a last-second equaliser by Mark Cooper.

And when I say last-second, I mean last-second. Cooper scored at 59:59. In the shootout, Conway was the hero for Belfast, earning them a vital extra point on their travels and securing Keefe another four-point weekend.

The Giants run rampant on Saturday versus the Fife Flyers, winning 7-1 on home ice. They now trail Sheffield by two points at the top of the table, having played one extra game. Belfast lead the league in goals scored (143) and goals against (66), the Steelers are second in both categories (137 GF, 95 GA).

Elsewhere in the Elite League

They didn’t know it at the time, but Cardiff’s 3-2 loss to Dundee on Wednesday was very costly. The Stars outperformed the Devils, killing four power plays and winning the shot battle despite being hammered 26-40 in the face-off circle.

If Cardiff had won on Wednesday, they would be sitting second in the Elite League. Instead, they start the week third in the standings, three points back of the Steelers having played four extra games.

It was also a week to remember for Kevin Carr, who stopped 46 shots on route to a shutout versus the Coventry Blaze on Saturday night.

Kevin Carr, Nottingham Panthers (Image: Panthers Images)
Kevin Carr, Nottingham Panthers (Image: Panthers Images)

In the bottom half of the standings, it was a painful week for the Storm, who lost 4-2 (@ Nottingham), 7-2 (v Sheffield), and 6-3 (v Dundee).

After Sunday’s loss to the Stars, head coach Ryan Finnerty said: “I thought we played a really good 40 minutes and then came out a bit flat in the third. Then they got the go-ahead goal and then it just kind of snowballed, we turned over the puck on the blueline, they got to 4-2, and the game quickly got away from us.”

Manchester’s disappointing week sees them drop beneath the playoff line, with their record dipping to 12-21-3 on the season. They’ve played three more games than the Stars and Blaze, who sit two and three points ahead of them, respectively.

Next week, they face Cardiff and Belfast on the road. Gulp.

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