It may have been 573 days since their last game at the SSE Arena but, when the action got under way, it felt like nothing had changed in the intervening 18 months for the Belfast Giants.
hat’s not true though. Since their last game at home against the Fife Flyers in March 2020, the SSE Arena alone has undergone mutliple changes, serving as a food bank and a mass vaccination centre during the pandemic.
The team is different, too. Of the side that faced the Flyers two years ago, only five of them were listed on the game-sheet last night. Even off the ice, the new rebrand means teams are now warned by the large banner on the Bridge that they are entering the ‘Home Of The Belfast Giants’.
But once the puck dropped on the Giants’ 2-0 win over the Dundee Stars, it was back to business as normal for Adam Keefe’s men as they rewarded a near 5,000-strong crowd that packed inside the arena with a hard-fought Challenge Cup victory.
J.J. Piccinich, in only his third game for the team, buried his third goal of the season on the powerplay — which ran 1-for-5 — and Lewis Hook grabbed his second of the year to take the Giants to 3-0 to start the campaign.
After conceding three in the corresponding fixture in Dundee last weekend, this time starting netminder Tyler Beskorowany turned away 25 shots in a home opener shutout as Keefe’s side continued what has been a very impressive start to the campaign.
Compared with last week, this perhaps was not quite as polished a performance to reflect on for Keefe, and Charlie Combs ringing the iron twice for the Stars shows how close the game could have been, but he will be happy nonetheless with another win under their belt as they continue to build into the season.
But while the result was the cherry on top of the cake, this was a night where the celebration was the return of elite-level ice hockey to the city, and the atmosphere was suitably electric.
With the relaxing of social distancing restrictions, the extra seats were drafted in under the Bridge to accommodate a larger crowd, a large portion of which were in situ for the team skating out for warm-up a full 40 minutes before opening face-off, and there was an emotional address to the crowd before the puck dropped from Robert Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Odyssey Trust.
And, with that, hockey was back in Belfast.
It took just 4:16 for Piccinich to send the home crowd into raptures when he rapped in a powerplay goal with Dillon Lawrence off for tripping, the winger skating onto a rebound and smashing the one-timer past Stars netminder Adam Morrison, who made 30 saves on the night.
Both teams then saw powerplay chances come and go prior to Hook doubling the hosts’ lead.
The GB international jumped into the rush with Jordan Boucher and, when his wing partner found him with the tape-to-tape pass, Hook made no mistake with the roofed finish on Morrison’s glove side at 17:38.
Like at the Dundee Ice Arena a week prior, the Stars were targeting Boucher to try and get him riled up, Markus Kankaanperä the instigator, taking both off for roughing, and it appeared that might lead to a feisty second period, but it proved to be nothing more than a false dawn.
Combs pinging the iron midway through the second period was the height of the action in the middle frame, and for most of the third it seemed it would contain a similar lack of excitement.
But in the final three minutes things sparked again as Combs hit the post for the second time on the powerplay, and then tensions between Boucher and Kyle Haas — stemming back to their first meeting a week prior — overflowed as they dropped the gloves with 21 seconds left.
The Stars had one last chance on the powerplay, with Boucher heading off, but Beskorowany shut the door one last time to maintain the shutout and, after 573 days away, send the fans home happy once again.