“WE OWED it to the fans to get to Coventry,” said Lightning general manager Vito Rausa after his team secured their place in the English Premier League play-off semi final this weekend.
Lightning now go to the Coventry Skydome for the first time in two years after seeing off Basingstoke Bison 3-2 and 4-3 in their two legged quarter final tie played on Saturday and Sunday. And Rausa paid tribute to the supporters who he said played a massive role in ensuring Lightning reached the semi finals, where they’ll take on Manchester Phoenix.
“There must have been up to 200 Lightning fans at Basingstoke and they out sang and out cheered the 600 or so home supporters from start to finish. They were like having the extra man on the ice and the club is so proud of them.”
“We owed it those fans to get the finals and now we’re feeling quietly confident we can go all the way.”
Rausa admitted he could not even watch the third period of Sunday’s return leg at Bison because he was becoming too emotionally involved, and that would not help the players.
“I disappeared off from the bench and left Pooley (Nick Poole) to do the bench coaching – he was doing a good job anyway.”
Rausa added that he was delighted with the way the team’s ‘big’ players stepped up to the mark when they were needed most – Monir Kalgoum bagging the final two late goals that swung the tie in Lightning’s favour while the first two goals on the night in Hampshire arrived courtesy of Andre Smulter and Blaz Emersic.
There’s a certain irony in Emersic’s appearance at Coventry this weekend as last season he scored both Slough Jets’ goals when they beat Guildford Flames in the play-off final.
However, this year he left Jets in acrimonious circumstances and was quickly snapped up by Lightning. His replacement at Slough, Adam Calder, did not ice over the weekend and the Berkshire outfit lost their quarter final match up with Peterborough Phantoms.
Lightning face league champions Manchester Phoenix in the first of the semi finals on Saturday at 3pm, and they will fancy their chances of progressing having beaten them 6-3 in January and only lost by the odd goal when the sides met in their last two league encounters. Although the north west side were in devastating form to beat Sheffield Steeldogs in their last eight tie.
If they come through that then a final against either Guildford Flames or Peterborough will await Lightning at 4pm on Sunday, with the Surrey side having brushed aside Swindon Wildcats to make it.
Lightning enjoyed dream starts to both their quarter final games with Bison. On Saturday they raced into a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes at Planet Ice as first Lukas Zatopek fired them ahead on 1min 51secs with what looked a harmless shot which caught goalie Dean Skinns off guard.
Some good work by Kalgoum on the right set up Gary Clarke to shoot home first time to double Lightning’s advantage after 5mins 6secs before Smulter looked to have all the time in the world to pick his spot for the third goal while the sides were four on four at 7mins 51secs.
The visitors called an immediate time out, but although it prevented the Lightning goal machine getting any more, it failed to get Bison back into contention until deep into the second session.
A pass from Nicky Chinn reached Ondrej Lauko in front of goal to slot home at 37mins 29secs. And only 14 seconds remained in the period when Steve Moria set up Viktor Kubenko to make it 3-2. Bison then battled for an equaliser in the last session but ultimately to no avail.
The next day Smulter crashed in a blueline bullet after only 1min 51secs to put Lightning ahead on the night and into a 4-2 aggregate lead. Ciaran Long levelled for Bison after 6mins 8secs before Emersic edged his side back in front after 15mins 42secs.
The hosts hit back with Ben Davies levelling the night’s scores on the powerplay after 28mins 13secs, and Bison then took the lead with a third goal coming from Long on 37mins 31secs to make the overall score 5-5.
Overtime loomed as Kalgoum took a Michael Wales pass on to score with 4mins 10secs left, and the Swede then made the game safe with an empty net goal with 43 seconds left to play to send the visiting fans into rapture.
Defenceman Michael Farn was also keen to acknowledge the role of the fans, and said he couldn’t wait to see them out in force again in Coventry.
He said: “We haven’t accomplished anything yet but the supporters have been like an extra man on the ice for us and we want to hear them all loud and proud again at the Skydome!”