Belfast Giants begin Contintental Cup bid

Sebastien Sylvestre will face his old club Belfast Giants
Sebastien Sylvestre will face his old club Belfast Giants

Stena Line Belfast Giants coach Adam Keefe reckons his team’s improved disciplinary record this season could be a key factor in the Continental Cup semi-finals which get under way on Thursday night at the SSE Arena.

Keefe’s team go into the European tournament in a rich vein of form, having moved four points clear at the top of the Elite League standings after a superb 8-1 away win over champions Cardiff Devils on Sunday.

The Giants need a top two finish in the four-team event which is the equivalent of football’s Europa League to advance

They begin their campaign with a game against Croatian side KHL Medveščak Zagreb at the SSE Arena on Thursday (7pm).

They then face Italians Ritten Sport on Friday and Poland’s GKS Katowice on Saturday (both 7pm).

Should they progress, the Giants will contest the finals in January, at a venue to be decided after the qualifiers are known from the two semi-finals, the second of which takes place in France.

Keefe is naturally delighted at the Giants’ form, which has seen them win seven in a row and 15 out of the last 16, helped by some impressive self-discipline from his players.

“We had some hot-heads in the squad last season and our discipline let us down on some occasions,” said the Giants head coach.

“But we addressed that when we were recruiting new players over the summer and we were careful in who we brought in and all credit to the guys who have joined.

“This season, our discipline has been first-class and the only penalties we have had have been either soft calls, ones we had to take or those resulting from normal hockey plays.

“It’s going to be important that we continue in the same manner this weekend, if we are to achieve our ambition and get to the next stage.”

Thursday night’s opponents line up with some familiar faces, including Sebastien Sylvestre, who was the Giants leading scorer last season, with 31 goals and 41 assists in 54 league games.

Keefe is expecting a tough test but is relishing the challenge, having played in the tournament when the Giants missed out on the finals only on goal-difference in 2015.

“It’s an opportunity to disengage our brains from the Elite League and it’s nice to be at home with all the comforts that it brings,” added the Canadian.

“As always, it’s a case of taking one game at a time and the Zagreb game is our main focus at this point.

“Obviously, Sebastian is a big threat and a quality player but he is just one we’ll have to look out for.

“They also have five Croation internationals in their line-up and they play in a league that is regarded as better than ours, so it’s going to be a tough start.”