LIGHTNING are through to the English Premier League championship finals weekend for the first time in two years after a dramatic victory over Basingstoke Bison in their quarter final double header at the weekend.
Nick Poole’s out of form side took a 3-2 lead to Hampshire on Sunday and won 4-3 thanks to two late Monir Kalgoum goals, making it 7-5 on aggregate and setting them up for a semi final clash with league winners Manchester Phoenix.
On Saturday they had a dream start, taking a three goal lead by the eighth minute only to see Bison hit back with two quick goals late in the middle session. But a superb performance the following day means Lightning are still on for a fifth play-off success, with Peterborough Phantoms or Guildford Flames next up for the city side if they can beat Phoenix, after they qualified for Coventry with wins over Slough Jets and Swindon Wildcats respectively.
Lightning came out of the blocks the more assured side against Bison at Planet Ice on Saturday and defenceman Lukas Zatopek fired home a shot from the blue line after only 1:53 to give them an immediate advantage.
Just over three minutes later Gary Clarke connected with a Kalgoum pass to double the home side’s lead, before leading scorer Andre Smulter sent Lightning fans into raptures by scoring a top-shelf third for his team on 7:51, with Kalgoum again the supplier.
A stunned Bison team - who finished one place above Lightning in the regular season - immediately called a time out to try and steady the ship. And the visitors stepped up the pressure in the second period, although Lightning’s netminder Barry Hollyhead pulled off a string of vital saves, helping to keep his side in control until Ondrej Lauko found a way past him with only 3:31 left of the period.
Steve Moria then set up Viktor Kubenko to grab a second goal for Bison only 14 seconds before the second break and suddenly it was game on again.
Lightning’s supporters endured a nailbiting final period but were rewarded by Basingstoke being unable to make any further inroads, giving Lightning a one goal advantage to take to the second leg the following day.
Sunday’s game saw Lightning supporters cram into the away seating area, providing a constant, noisy backing. And Nick Poole’s side kept up their momentum from the previous day’s win when Lewis Christie set up Smulter to score a powerplay goal from the blue line with only 1:31 on the clock.
That advantage lasted under five minutes after Bison’s Ciaran Long found a way past Hollyhead. But Lightning responded courtesy of a Blaz Emersic shot, set up well by Michael Wales a little over four minutes before the first break.
Lightning maintained the pressure after the interval and defenceman Michael Farn was unlucky not to score early in the second period - his shot ricocheting off the pipes before Ben Davies scored to put Basingstoke right back in the game.
Long struck again less than three minutes before the second break, putting Bison level on aggregate and lining up a nerve-shredding final period for both sets of supporters. And it was beginning to look like the result might only be settled by overtime when Wales passed to Kalgoum to convert, sending both the away bench and supporters into raptures.
As the clock counted down, Basingstoke withdrew their keeper leaving an empty net for Kalgoum to calmly direct a long range shot at, and send Lightning to the Coventry finals for the first time in two seasons.
Lightning take on Phoenix in the first semi final at 3.00pm on Saturday at the Coventry Skydome Arena. Guildford Flames then take on Peterborough Phantoms at 7.00pm before the winners of both games do battle in the final on Sunday.
Tickets are still available from the Skydome box office on 02476-630693.