Milton Keynes Lightning will do battle with Basingstoke Bison in a bid to win their first ever English Premier League Cup crown after a sensational semi final victory at Altrincham on Thursday.
Stan Lascek – returning from injury – sent Lightning into the final with an overtime strike against Manchester Phoenix to secure a 5-4 win – 10-9 on aggregate and set up the final clash with Bison who, like Lightning have never won the competition.
It will be Lightning’s fifth attempt at lifting the title, having been beaten by Guildford Flames in the last appearance in 2010.
Lightning and Phoenix went into the game evenly matched after a 5-5 score in the first leg at Coventry the previous week.
It was Lightning who scored first only to trail 2-1 at the first break.
Janne Jokila beat goalie Stephen Fone after 5mins 55secs from a set up by Lukas Zatopek.
Phoenix player coach Tony Hand supplied James Neil to equalise at 11mins 16secs – Lightning having survived a penalty for changing their lines on icing the puck three minutes earlier.
Former Slough Jet Frantisek Bakrlik took Hand’s pass just over a minute later to defeat netminder Stephen Wall for a second time at 12mins 36secs.
Manchester held their lead to the first break but Lightning levelled things up when Lascek found the net unassisted at 24mins 52secs while his team were a man short with Michael Farn in the sin bin for interference.
The Slovakian was involved again as Lightning went in front after 30mins 59secs with captain Adam Carr getting the vital strike.
Phoenix capitalised while on the powerplay – Lewis Christie penalised for hooking – with Robert Schnabel the supplier for Luke Boothroyd at 35mins 7secs.
Home fans’ hopes were raised shortly after when Phoenix had the puck in the net – but the ‘goal’ was disallowed as a player was in the goal crease.
The period ended with Christie being given a five plus match penalty for a high stick on Michal Psurny – later downgraded as the Phoenix man returned to the ice, with the home outfit’s Robin Kovar also thrown out just before the break for abusing an official.
Manchester got another equaliser on the powerplay when Neil scored at 44mins 46secs while Ross Green was in the penalty box for tripping.
Lightning later survived a five on three penalty with the game finishing at 4-4 after regulation time. That meant overtime was needed but it lasted only 1min 3secs before Lascek sealed victory unassisted and send Lightning’s noisy fans wild.
Afterwards, Lightning’s General Manager Vito Rausa paid tribute to the endeavours of the team and their supporters.
He said: “When you think that with even our home games being away games, for us to be sitting fourth is amazing, and to get to the cup final is superb.
“Given all of our challenges logistically this season, this is no more than the guys deserve.
“They haven’t complained once about all the travelling - they just get on with it, week in and week out.
“Even for midweek training it’s an hour there and an hour back, and most of the guys have jobs, too - so to be where we are is amazing and we’re so, so happy.
“We’ve had a hugely busy period since our break in January and played a lot of midweek games as well as twice every weekend - you try asking top footballers to do that as well as hold down a day job!
“The last week or so in particular has been difficult with quite a few injuries but the team spirit here never fails to amaze me - how they keep going is just something else.”
Turning his attentions to the Lightning’s supporters, Vito said the team and the management were grateful for their efforts.
He added: “The number of fans that turn out to see us in Coventry has been beyond what we’d hoped for, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate that.
“At the beginning of the season we didn’t know what to expect - but, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I really do think we have the best fans in the league.
“We had back-to-back games in Basingstoke then Guildford recently and we didn’t know how many people would travel - but our supporters packed the away blocks at both games and out-sang the home support! Then tonight in Altrincham was just exceptional - a near six hour return trip on a weeknight and we had 30 or 40 fans singing their hearts out.
“Nick Poole said the noise they made gave him a shiver down his spine!”