The Belfast Giants’ third Champions League campaign begins in Finland this weekend with back-to-back games against Lukko Rauma and defending champions Tappara Tampere.
It’s a tough start for Adam Keefe’s side, but then again, every game in the CHL is a true test against the continent’s best sides from its elite leagues.
Only once before have the Elite League champions progressed into the last 16 and since its inception in 2014 and only Cardiff and Nottingham have won points on the road.
This season the format of the competition has been revamped and some new rules changes will be employed for the first time.
Instead of the traditional Pools of four teams playing each other home and away, each side will play six different teams, with three games at home and three away. There’s a straight 1-24 league ranking system, of which the top 16 will move on to the knockout stages.
The main rule change will see a player sit for the full duration of his penalty, usually two minutes, regardless of whether the team with the man advantage scores, which would normally signal the end of the powerplay.
Conversely, if the team that is shorthanded scores, then the penalty does come to an immediate end.
The purpose is to punish penalties more severely and, in turn, create more goal scoring opportunities that could have a huge influence in the result of a game.
‘We want to be in the game’
Despite memorably winning the Grand Slam last season there has been a high player turnover for the Giants with twelve new faces joining the club.
They’ve been on the ice together for less than a fortnight, with only a couple of pre-season games against the Cardiff Devils to prepare for start of the CHL.
Head coach Adam Keefe admits his team are in for “two very tough games” but he can call on previous Champions League experience.
“We haven’t actually played a Finnish team before, but I expect them to work very hard, very sound defensively,” he added.
“We’re going to have to work for everything we get, and we’re going to have to match their urgency and intensity defensively.
“If we can do that, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to be in the game and strike. That’s all we’re looking for.
“We want to be in the game and give ourselves a chance to win it.”
Keefe said that 2021/22 Finnish Liiga champions Lukko Rauma “have a great hockey programme” with their men’s and women’s teams and will “prove to be stern opposition for all teams in the CHL”.
He added that the Giants’ second match, against the defending champions Tappara Tampere, will provide a huge challenge but he is confident his side can stay in the game.
“There’s no doubt that Tappara Tampere were deserved winners of the CHL last season,” Keefe said.
“They’re an incredibly strong side with a roster full of talented players and we’re very much looking forward to heading to the Nokia Arena and giving it everything we’ve got.
“A big factor will be discipline. Their power plays are very good. If you keep putting them on the power play, you’re going to be in trouble. Especially this year with the rules.”
‘It will be a great test’
One of the Giants’ new signings is Japanese international Kohei Sato, who joined Belfast from Finnish side KeuPa HT.
“Hockey in Finland is huge. It’s one of the biggest hockey countries in the world and two years ago they won the world championships,” Sato said.
“You know, the sport itself means a lot to Finnish people and the crowds are really nice. They kind of cheer like football games.
“I was a great atmosphere there and I can’t wait to be back. Obviously being able to play in the Champions League was one of the reasons I came to Belfast.
“I’m looking forward to playing the best of the top of European hockey players. Nothing short of testing out your ability, testing out our team’s ability.
“I think it’s going to be a great test for us this weekend.”