Giants look to strike early knockout blow in title race with Steelers

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BELFAST Giants head coach Doug Christiansen always felt his team’s last three games of the Elite League season would have a huge say in his team’s bid for the regular season championship.

Belfast - currently seven points clear of Friday night hosts Sheffield Steelers by seven points - entertain Ryan Finnerty’s team twice later this month, before finishing their campaign with another home game against third-placed Nottingham Panthers.

Many hockey fans are expecting the regular season title race to go down to at least the penultimate weekend between the top two in Belfast, but the Giants can take a huge step towards a second league championship with victory in Sheffield on Friday night.

Steelers may have three games in hand on the Giants but Christiansen, now in his second term in charge at the Odyssey Arena, would rather be out in front with the points already secured.

“I think everybody knows that the three games between us and the Steelers are going be the deciding factor as to where this title goes,” said Christiansen.

“And Friday night’s game in Sheffield will play a huge role.

“If you were to offer me the points on the board or games in hand I’d take the first one. There are just so many variables that can happen when you’ve got the games in hand. Sheffield still have to win those games, but then injuries and other things can all add up.

“I feel we’re playing our best hockey at the moment. Some of the things we are doing right now shows that what we’ve been practising is all beginning to click.

“If we can continue to get scoring from all three lines and continue to have success on the penalty kill and power play like we have been doing, then it all bodes well.”

Christiansen acknowledges his team’s title chances have been helped by the schedule drawn up at the start of the season which means that by the end of the season, 20 of his team’s 27 road games will have been worked in as double-header away weekends, meaning less time spent travelling back and forth across the Irish Sea.

“I told Todd Kelman (Giants GM) at the beginning of the year that the scheduling meeting was about as big of a day as any other,“ said Christiansen.

“For us, it is extremely important to have as many double headers as possible on the road and therefore spending less time going across the Irish Sea - that can only help.”

Sheffield Steelers will hold a minute’s silence before Friday night’s game against Belfast in memory of Kelly Dutiaume, the wife of Fife Flyers head coach Todd Dutiaume.

The 38-year-old died suddenly on Monday along with the couple’s unborn twins.

Marks of respect are expected to be shown across the weekend at Elite League games, while Fife fans will gather at the club’s rink on Friday night to pay their respects.

Danny Stewart has taking over coaching duties for the team while Dutiaume is understandably on leave.

A number of Steelers’ fans are also planning to release Candle Lanterns on the field adjoining Ice Sheffield at 6.30pm.

Both Nottingham Panthers and Hull Stingrays - who host Fife this weekend - will also hold a minute’s silence before their respective games.