Belfast Giants’ season was settled on Sunday to a late goal that left Cardiff Devils as back-to-back Elite League play-off champions in Nottingham.
Devils netminder Ben Bowns posted a ‘Player of the Game’ display to frustrate the Giants over the Belfast squad’s first play-off final appearance since 2014.
Kevin Raine netted an equaliser at 49:56 after Mike Hedden gave the Devils a first-period lead, only for Gleason Fournier to score the winner.
It marked a disappointing end to one of the Giants’ most successful seasons in the 19-year history thanks to claiming the Erhardt Conference, Challenge Cup and Elite League titles.
Tyler Beskorowany started in the Belfast net with the Giants missing Andrew Dickson, David Rutherford and Guillaume Gelinas.
The Giants edged the opening period and also impressively killed off a two-minute five-on-three powerplay.
Drew Schiestel’s hit on Darcy Murphy was a flashpoint early on, with the Giants forward missing for the second and third periods following the incident.
However, it was the Devils who struck first.
Cardiff transitioned quickly, leaving Hedden one-on-one with Beskorowany and the Devils forward fired low into the Belfast net.
The Giants dominated proceedings in the middle period. Cardiff’s Bowns pulled off a string of impressive saves to keep the Devils ahead moving into the final period.
The Belfast equaliser came at 49:56 when Raine’s cool finish gave the Giants hope with a deserved goal.
However, it was late heartbreak for the Giants when Fournier, assisted by Matt Pope, finished well to seal the play-off title for the Devils.
Next season’s double-decade anniversary campaign will include defences by the Giants of the Erhardt Conference, Challenge Cup and Elite League titles as well as competing in the Champions Hockey League for the first time ever.
“We had a lot of chances to put them away but couldn’t do it,” said Belfast Giants coach Adam Keefe on the BBC Sport NI website. “A couple of mistakes on the goals, aside from that I thought we were spectacular.
“We talked about, win or lose, go out there and empty the tank and leave it all on the ice, I’m super proud of that.
“It stings right now for sure but I told them, remember you are not just champions, you are two-time champions this season, three if you include the Conference.
“I’m tremendously proud of those guys, they’ve made my second year of coaching extra special and extra easy with the quality of people in that locker-room and the quality of players.
“We’ve got to give our kudos to Cardiff, they’re a great team all year and a great team tonight as well.”
Success on Saturday at the same Motorpoint Arena venue over Guildford Flames set up the Sunday showdown as the Stena Line-backed Giants secured a 2-1 success.
Final-period goals from Jonathan Ferland and Pat Dwyer gave the Giants the comeback victory.
The Guildford Flames struck the first blow off Ian Watters.
The Belfast breakthrough happened when, after good work by Chris Higgins and Colin Shields, Ferland hammered home to bring the game level.
The Giants piled on the pressure and got their decisive goal. Dwyer, assisted by Kyle Baun and Jordan Smotherman, was on hand at the back post to rifle home.