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Will Cullen: There is no room for error if Belfast Giants hope to retain league title

Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 03rd December 2022 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Belfast Giants’ Will Cullen with Manchester Storm’s Dallas Ehrhardt during Saturdays Elite Ice Hockey League game at the SSE Arena, Belfast    Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Belfast Giants v Manchester Storm - Elite Ice Hockey League Belfast Giants’ Will Cullen (William Cherry/William Cherry/Presseye)

Belfast Giants defenceman Will Cullen says that the Giants will need to be close to perfect for the remainder of the season if they are to stand any chance of retaining the Elite League title this season.

In what has been a rollercoaster season for the Giants, Adam Keefe’s side now have some momentum following two wins over the Nottingham Panthers in last weekend’s double-header at the SSE Arena.

The Giants currently sit in third place in the Elite League, 14-points behind league leaders Sheffield Steelers. The men in teal are in for a significant challenge if they hope to overcome this deficit to retain last season’s league title but appear to be hitting form at the right time.

The new-look Giants side clicked at the weekend, helped by the recent return of significant figures from last season’s treble winning squad including Will Cullen and former captain David Goodwin.

Cullen opted to leave the Giants on a high in the summer, joining Slovenian side HK Olimpija Ljubljana ahead of the 2023/24 season and went on to represent Toledo Walleye in his native United States.

According to the 27-year-old, he did not take much coaxing to return to Belfast when head-coach Adam Keefe came calling for mid-season reinforcements.

“During my time away, it was in the back of my mind I wanted to come back to Belfast.” Cullen explains.

“The fans here are great and I love living in Belfast – it feels like home. It’s hard to get that kind of support anywhere else. I was having conversations with Keefer (Adam Keefe) and I wanted to come back so when the opportunity arose I didn’t have to think twice. It was an easy decision.”

Cullen is realistic yet hopeful when discussing the prospect of chasing down the Steelers in the race to the Elite league title. The return of last season’s inspirational captain, he says, could make a significant difference in the Giant’s efforts to reclaim their crown.

“I think as a group we have to be pretty much near perfect in order to be in the running for the league right now.” Cullen explains.

“We’re obviously sitting a bit behind Sheffield and there’s a bit of a battle going on towards the top of the table with the other teams. Cardiff have a couple of games in hand as well, so every game matters especially at this stage of the season.

“Goodwin coming back in is such a good thing for the group. I think he’s the most successful captain in the club’s history and has won something like five trophies in three seasons. He’s a good leader, guys like playing with him and he’s a good person. It’s a big thing to have got him back.”

Indeed, the return to Belfast of David Goodwin following his short but successful stint in Spain’s Liga Nacional de Hockey Hielo will undoubtedly give his teammates a much-needed boost as they enter the business end of the season.

Cullen is modest when acknowledging his own contribution, but has already made an impact, scoring the game-winner on his return to the Giants in the opening game of their weekend double-header against Nottingham.

“It felt good to get the game-winner – it’s how you want to come back, be part of it and contribute to the team.” Cullen explains.

“If you watch the goal back there was some luck – the hockey gods were definitely on my side.”

Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe
Belfast Giants head coach Adam Keefe

“It was great to be back in front of the home fans and if you can’t get up for games like that with the crowd behind you then something has got to be wrong. It’s easy to get up for those games. I was ready to play so I was more just thinking about how I would fit into the new line-up and how I would contribute.

“We played a solid sixty minutes in both games last weekend. We were leading and I don’t think we ever really looked back in both games because everyone was pulling the rope in the same direction.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to just do you job and trust your teammates will do theirs. It was a really positive weekend and something to build on.”

The Giants return to action this weekend to continue the mini-series against the Panthers, this time in Nottingham on Saturday. The Giants stay on the road over the weekend as they travel to Coventry Blaze on Sunday.

Cullen is cautiously optimistic his side can maintain their momentum and even thinks a trophy is not yet out of the question.

“Obviously, the plan is to be lifting the trophy.” Cullen explains.

“We’ve got a lot to do but I think momentum is a big deal. You can go on a run and win ten or fifteen games in a row. This is the time to hopefully win a string of games.”

“We’ve beaten Nottingham twice in a row and we know we can beat them again. We’re trending in the right direction and wins this weekend will hopefully keep us on an upward trajectory.”