Ice Hockey: 2018 Review of the Year
THE Belfast Giants ended a four-year trophy drought in 2018 when they lifted the Challenge Cup in Adam Keefe's first season in charge, after a seamless and successful transition from team captain to head coach.
A 6-3 win over a Cardiff side on their own ice in March was undoubtedly the highlight of the year which ended in encouraging fashion as the Giants sit at the top of the Elite League standings going into 2019.
They are also in contention for three more trophies with a place in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup and the Continental Cup finals already secured with the end-of-season play-offs to come.
The year started with a 3-2 home league defeat to Sheffield Steelers, leaving Keefe's men with five points to make up on Cardiff.
However, after completing a facile 10-3 Cup quarter-final win over Fife Flyers, the Giants then hit a rich vein of form, winning five games in a row to cut the gap on the leaders to just three.
January ended on a disappointing note with back-to-back road defeats in Nottingham and Sheffield, the Steelers putting eight goals past the Giants without reply in what was to be their biggest loss of the entire campaign.
It was hardly the sort of result they wanted with a Challenge Cup semi-final first leg away to the Panthers as the first game in February.
However, goals in the second period from Spiro Goulakos and Sebastian Sylvestre in the third completed an impressive 5-1 victory, making the second leg in Belfast look a formality.
Before that though, there was a crucial league double header to come at the SSE Arena when champions Cardiff arrived in town, defending a seven points lead at the top of the standings.
Darcy Murphy scored the winning penalty shot as the Giants took the honours 4-3 in the first game.
But Cardiff then dealt another blow to the Giants' hopes of a first title since 2014 with a 3-2 overtime win in the rematch, Joey Martin scoring the all-important winner.
Even at that point, it was looking like the best chance of Keefe's team lifting silverware lay in the cup with just two more games standing between them and the trophy.
However, despite taking a four-goal lead into the semi-final home leg against the Panthers, it was far from plain sailing after goals from Sylvestre and team captain Blair Riley had made it 2-1 on the night and 7-2 on aggregate.
Nottingham scored four unanswered goals to reduce the overall margin to one but that seemed to shake the Giants out of their lethargy as they pulled it back to 5-5 before two third period goals from Jonathan Ferland made it 7-6 on the night and 12-7 overall.
After beating Fife 6-4, the Giants went on to lose three of their next four league games, including a 4-2 home defeat to an Edinburgh side that had won only four times in their previous 42 outings.
Steve Saviano hit the winner as a 2-1 win over Sheffield stopped the rot but a 6-2 reverse in Cardiff the following day all but ended any slim hopes the Giants could catch the leaders, who were then 13 points ahead with only eight games left.
Six days later, on March 4, not too many of the travelling fans would have given the Giants too much hope of turning the tables on the league champions-elect in the Challenge Cup final.
But Keefe's side twice came from behind to lift the trophy for the first time since 2009 and only the second time in the club's 18-year history.
Layne Ulmer put the Devils into an early lead and Gleason Fournier made it 2-1 after Brandon Benedict's equaliser but goals from John Kurtz and Ferland made it 3-2 to the Giants going into the final 20 minutes.
Matt Towe and Murphy scored to put three goals between the teams and Ferland got his second to wrap up a well deserved win after Jake Morissette had reduced the deficit.
A 5-3 defeat by Glasgow Clan in Belfast four days later dampened the homecoming celebrations a little and after wins over Nottingham and Fife, a 3-2 home defeat to Cardiff on March 16 guaranteed the Welsh side the league title and swift retribution for their cup final loss.
The Giants finished fifth in the standings and then turned their attention to the play-offs but lived to regret throwing away a 3-0 first leg lead as they took a slender 4-3 advantage to Nottingham.
Jim Vandermeer tied things up at 4-3 down and 7-7 on aggregate with four minutes left but Dan Spang hit the Panthers' winner in overtime to make it 5-3 on the night and 8-7 overall.
Over the summer, Keefe recruited 10 new players, including Great Britain internationals Paul Swindlehurst and Lewis Hook along with ex-NHL player Pat Dwyer and former Edinburgh Capitals netminder Tyler Beskorowany.
Among the departures were last season's goalie Jackson Whistle who left for Sheffield, and player-of-the-year Saviano (Germany) while the Giants also lost top scorers Sylvestre and Brendan Connolly to Croatia and Glasgow respectively.
After four straight wins in opening their Challenge Cup defence, the Giants made a poor start to the league and were briefly sitting at the foot of the table after losing three of their first four games.
But they proceeded to win 15 out of the next 16 in a superb run which included an 8-1 away win over Cardiff and qualification for this month's Continental Cup finals which are being hosted in Belfast.
In the semi-final series at the SSE Arena, the Giants defeated Medvescak Zagreb (Croatia) 4-0, Ritten (Italy) 4-2 before losing 4-2 to Katowice but that result didn't prevent them from joining the Poles in the showpiece.
Since the November tournament, the Giants have won 11 out of their last 16 games and have progressed to a Challenge Cup semi-final with Glasgow following a 12-2 aggregate win over Dundee.
The Scots turned the tables in the last game of 2018 with a 3-2 league victory in Belfast but the Giants ended the year a point ahead of Cardiff at the top of the standings after a memorable 12 months.