Elite League: Leaders Belfast Giants thump Guildford as Sheffield slip up

Mark Cooper (right) smiles after notching one of the Giants goals against Guildford
Mark Cooper (right) notched a hat-trick in Belfast’s dominant win over Guildford Flames

The Elite League title race produced another twist as the Belfast Giants beat the Guildford Flames 5-0 while the Sheffield Steelers lost in a shootout to the Manchester Storm.

The Giants have four games left and lead the Steelers, who have a game in hand against Manchester on Wednesday, by three points.

It sets the scene for a spectacular finish with the top two set to meet in Sheffield for a doubleheader next weekend before a final clash in Belfast on 15 April.

Mark Cooper scored a hat-trick for the Giants in another comfortable home victory with Slater Doggett and JJ Piccinich getting the other goals but that only tells half the story.

The face-off was delayed by two and a quarter hours as the Flames were delayed at Heathrow Airport and because of baggage handling issues not all of their equipment was loaded onto the flight to Belfast.

Two Guildford players don’t make the trip

Two of their players didn’t make the trip either and it meant the Giants sourcing sticks and pads for some of the Guildford players to use.

Despite that the visitors produced a resilient first period with netminder Liam Hughes on top form as he limited the Giants to the one goal that came just before the halfway point.

Doggett showed excellent puck control and skating ability until he found himself in the high slot when he turned and fired into the top corner.

Guildford were unlucky not to be back on level terms early in the second period as they forced Tyler Beskorowany into a couple of big saves but two Cooper goals would stretch the Giants lead.

The first came from a Lewis Hook assist and then on the powerplay the Giants spread the puck the width of the ice and Cooper deflected in the pass from Ben Lake.

Belfast's Slater Doggett tries to keep an attack going with Guildford's Liam Hughes and Alex Yuill attempting to avert the danger
Slater Doggett hit Belfast’s opening goal in the first period

The Giants fourth goal came in the final minute of the period when the league’s leading scorer Piccinich beat Hughes after a face-off win.

While the Giants were safely on their way to two more vital points the game in Manchester, which was originally scheduled to have started 90 minutes after the Giants but did in fact begin 45 minutes before the puck drop in Belfast, was a much closer affair with Sheffield leading 2-1 after two periods.

The Giants started the final twenty minutes killing a penalty but that didn’t matter to Cooper who calmly slotted the puck beyond Hughes for the shorthanded goal and his hat-trick to make it 5-0.

Meanwhile in Manchester the home side had come from behind twice and equalised with four minutes remaining against Sheffield to tie the game at 3-3 and then had killed a penalty in overtime to force a shootout.

While the clock ticked down at the SSE Arena many were glued to their phones watching what was happening in Manchester and when the Storm won the shootout in sudden death the Giants supporters gave their loudest cheer of the night.

It’s still a narrow lead but as the season comes down to final two weekends it’s the Giants in pole position to defend their Elite League title.

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