By John Jones
Cardiff Devils are firmly locked in a two-horse race with Belfast Giants at the top of the Elite League after a hugely impressive start to the calendar year.
Despite trailing narrowly to their Northern Irish rivals at Christmas, and exchanging positions ever since, the Devils are now three points clear, with a game in hand, at time of writing.
Andrew Lord’s side, named as BBC Sport Wales’ Team of the Year in December, have been in prolific form, winning 12 of their first 15 matches in 2019, and recording nine consecutive victories throughout January.
A late Drew Schiestel rocket saw the Devils move top with victory over Guildford Flames on New Year’s Day, before they continued their streak with confident wins over Manchester Storm, Glasgow Clan, Nottingham Panthers, and a 6-0 drubbing of Fife Flyers.
An epic weekend double header against the Giants, then also unbeaten in the league in the New Year, posed the biggest threat to Cardiff’s flawless form.
However, in front of a capacity crowd at the Viola Stadium across both nights, the Devils emerged triumphantly from the weekend with two convincing wins.
Despite falling early in the first game through a Colin Shields goal, the Devils struck twice through Mike Hedden and Layne Ulmer to enter the final period with a 2-1 lead.
Whilst the Giants threatened a late comeback, goals from Gleason Fournier and Sean Bentivoglio saw Cardiff emerge with a 4-2 victory, as keeper Ben Bowns put in a Man of the Match performance, saving 27 of the 29 shots he faced.
A day later, it only got better for the Devils, as they blew away the Giants in the opening period, scoring three times in just over a minute.
Just nine seconds after Mark Richardson – playing in his 800th game for the Devils – opened the scoring, Matt Pope doubled the lead with a smartly taken goal, before Bryce Reddick grabbed a fortunate third a minute later.
A hard-fought second period saw the Giants close the gap to one, but the Devils did not crumble, with final period strikes from Evan Mosey and Joey Martin ensuring a 5-2 win, and a spectacular double over the Northern Irish outfit.
The triumphant weekend meant that the Devils’ lead over the second-placed Giants stretched to a comfortable nine points, but, despite a midweek win over Sheffield Steelers, two stumbling blocks awaited Andrew Lord’s side.
In their final game of January, the Devils made the trip to Nottingham to take on the Panthers, a team they had defeated 5-4 at home less than two weeks earlier.
A competitive contest saw the deadlock only broken in the second period, with Bentivoglio replying instantly to Jon Rheault’s opener.
Things came to the boil in a fiery final period when Panthers defenceman Jaynen Rissling delivered a brutal knockout to Mosey with an illegal check to the head that left him sprawled on the ice, and put him out of the game.
Whilst Rissling rightly received a retrospective six-game ban, a similar three-match order was handed to the Devils’ Layne Ulmer, who left the bench to help his injured teammate, before starting an altercation with the Nottingham player.
To make matters worse, a late rocket from the Panthers’ Luke Pither sealed a 2-1 victory for his team, and handed the Devils their first loss of the calendar year.
There was similar disappointment a week later, as a misfiring Devils side came out on the wrong side of a 3-1 scoreline against Manchester Storm.
Although frustration was clearly later taken out on the Sheffield Steelers and Coventry Blaze in respective 7-3 and 6-5 victories, a 4-3 defeat to Guildford Flames proved that the Devils have lost the consistency they enjoyed in January – despite still topping the table, they are sitting far less comfortably than they were.
At time of writing, the Devils’ next two matches could be season-defining, as they once again face the pursuing Belfast Giants.
Whilst the Giants have the home advantage, they will also likely be distracted by their upcoming Challenge Cup Final clash against the Flames, meaning that there is certainly everything to play for.
As Andrew Lord and his team know, if they are to successfully rebuild their lead, and defend their Elite League title, nothing but two wins from two will suffice.