LIGHTNING’S stuttering season got a vital kick start on Saturday with an impressive 6-3 victory over Swindon Wildcats – the first time the side had hit more than five goals in a game in six weeks.
However, the goal machine stalled again the next day when Nick Poole’s charges conceded three goals in the opening nine minutes at Manchester Phoenix and went down 5-2.
It followed the disappointment of Lightning’s English Premier League Cup semi final exit at the hands of Sheffield Steeldogs on Thursday when they were unable to overcome a 1-0 first leg deficit in a game which ended 0-0 at Planet Ice.
The result made history for all the wrong reasons – being the first ever goalless game involving a senior Milton Keynes ice hockey team since the city’s Planet Ice rink opened some 22 years ago – Lightning and their predecessors, Kings, included.
Normally such a result is impossible with penalty shoot outs deciding league matches, but the overall loss to Steeldogs was not for want of trying with battling performances from the city side in both legs – the only goal being Chris Sykes’ 56th minute first tie strike that sets Sheffield up for the final against Manchester or Guildford Flames.
Lightning gave it their best shot on Thursday but were thwarted by a combination of superb goal tending by Steeldogs’ man of the match Ben Bowns and tight defensive work under the instruction of fine coaching by Andre Payette.
Indeed, how much influence the goalies had on the game was indicated by the fact that the hosts’ netminder, Barry Hollyhead, also picked up his team’s man of the match.
In the end one was left believing that both sides could have played all night and still not scored a goal between them!
Lightning’s best chances in the first period came from Lewis Christie, Michael Wales and Tuomas Tikkanen who had a great effort stopped by Bowns with his left leg.
Payette then went close for Steeldogs – unfortunately too close as he crashed into the net, dislodging it!
In the second period Adam Carr had a blue line blast saved while Steeldogs’ Steve Duncombe was the in penalty box for slashing and Hollyhead made good blocks from Lloyd Gibson and Edgars Bebris.
Leigh Jamieson then came straight out of the sin bin to fire a fine effort at goal but Bowns was up to the challenge again.
Chances were few and far between in the final session with Carr failing to find enough power on his shot on a short-handed breakaway before there was a moment of concern as Blaz Emersic retired from the game with a facial cut.
In contrast Saturday’s clash with Wildcats was an open and fast flowing game – Lightning opening their account when Tikkanen bagged his first goal for the club from Jamieson’s pass after 7mins 57secs.
But just 23 seconds later the home side were caught off guard as Aaron Nell fired high into the net past goalie Alex Mettam for the equaliser.
However, Lightning restored their lead to go 2-1 in front at the first break when man of the match Grant McPherson fed Matt Towalski for a fine shot which crept in at the top left hand side of goal on 17mins 46secs.
And just 39 seconds of the middle session had elapsed when Poole sent Tikkanen away up the left and his rocket of a shot beat netminder Tom Murdy for Lightning’s third goal.
McPherson needed only three seconds of a powerplay to score from close range following a slashing call on Jan Melichar at 32mins 43secs as Lightning continued to dominate.
Swindon did give themselves some hope of a comeback with a goal from Nell 39 seconds into the third period, but it did not spark a revival.
Instead McPherson blasted home a Lukas Zatopek pass after 52mins 55secs to make it 5-2 before Wildcats’ Jonas Hoog gave Mettam no chance with a great shot on 57mins 27secs.
With 1min 5secs remaining Murdy was withdrawn for the extra skater – allowing Zatopek to score on an empty net goal 10 seconds later to make it 6-3 and complete the scoring.
But Lightning could hardly have had a worse start to their game against Manchester at Altrincham the next day.
They fell a goal behind after 2mins 9secs when Jaroslav Spelda set up Ciaran Long, and when Poole was penalised for hooking, Phoenix were able to take advantage with Juraj Faith adding their second from Slava Koulikov’s pass on 6mins 6secs.
Tom Duggan then made it 3-0 to the home side after 8mins 22secs – sparking a quick time out by Lightning. But in truth the match was already lost at that stage, especially bearing mind that Lightning had not won their since their 8-2 Cup semi final success in 2010.
And things got even worse for the visitors 1min 51secs into the second period when Koulikov supplied Ladislav Harabin for the fourth home goal.
McPherson grabbed his third goal of the weekend to make it 4-1 after 26mins 50secs soon after a Spelda rocket had hit the Lightning goal metalwork.
That was all Lightning could manage in the middle period which ended 4-1. And although Tikkanen made it 4-2 – assisted by Tom Norton and Adam Carr – on 53mins 32secs, it was too late to start a significant revival, although Lightning did not give up, taking off Hollyhead in the final minute in the vain hope of getting a goal or two with the extra skater.
That had its consequence with Martin Cingel registering in the empty net for Manchester’s fifth goal with 30 seconds remaining to give the title challenging north west side a comfortable 5-2 win.
They trail Guildford at the top of the table while Lightning still have work to do in the fight for the end of season play-offs. On Saturday Slough Jets visit and Lightning go to Peterborough Phantoms on Sunday looking for some much need form to be sure of a top eight finish.