What a week it has been for MK Lightning. After having their Elite League status approved, they triumphed after penalty shoot-out drama but suffered defeat in the play-off final to bring down the curtain on Pete Russell’s first season in charge.
The 41-year-old Scot took over from Nick Poole as Lightning’s head coach at the beginning of the season, and brought in several new faces to his side and it saw them reach Sunday’s final with no end of drama along the way.
Despite losing 6-2 to Guildford Flames, Russell was proud of his players and said they left nothing behind after a fantastic season.
“In the final, we were simply beaten by a better team on the day,” he said. “Guildford were more clinical than we were. When we got it back to 4-2, we really attacked the game, but it left us open at the back and they capitalised.
“We had to do it though - if we hadn’t and we’d sat back, we’d always be wondering ‘what if’ so I don’t think we could do any more.
“There are a lot of positives to take. We have a young team, and we did pretty well. We’ve changed the way we play, changed personnel so we’ve had to adapt.”
After beating Telford Tigers two weeks ago, Lightning secured their spot in finals weekend in their old haunt of the Coventry Skydome, setting themselves up for a semi final against Basingstoke Bison.
But a 1-1 draw saw the game to go penalty shots, with Bobby Chamberlain netting the decisive shot to send Lightning to Sunday’s final.
Russell said: “After we beat Telford, we fancied our chances to be honest.
“Telford are a really well organised team, so after beating them, we knew we’d be close.
“When the game goes to over-time, you just have to sit back and hope for a little bit of luck... but our first penalty hit the bar! But Basingstoke missed their penalty too, so when we edged our way in front and eventually won it, it was a great feeling.
“The fans were incredible and made the atmosphere electric in there, all dressed in pink.”
Using his experience as coach for the Great Britain U23s, Russell got Lightning playing an exciting, attacking style of hockey - one which catapulted them to the top of the English Premier League.
But a slump in November saw them tumble down the order, eventually recovering to finish the season fifth. There was one disappointment along the way though.
Russell added: “Our biggest disappointment was losing to Peterborough in the cup semi final. We were good against them all season long, but lost out on the chance of getting through to the final.”
The future is looking bright for Lightning though. Last week’s announcement that they’d be stepping up to the Elite League in 2017 is a huge boost for the club, who only two years ago were wondering whether they’d be able to move back to the town.
“It really shows the ambition of the owners,” said Russell. “They want to push this club forward. It’s like MK Dons going up to the Premier League - we’ll be playing the best hockey teams in the country here in Milton Keynes.
“With the schools programme we have, with the rink we’ve got and the existing fanbase, I think we’re the best team in Milton Keynes to follow. We’d love to have more people in the rink, and we’re excited to see that carry on.”
Despite all the change, one thing that has remained constant though is the Lightning fanbase, once again proving to be the loudest when it came to the finals in Coventry, and indeed welcoming home the players on Sunday night.
Russell added: “The fans have been incredible. We took hundreds to Coventry, and they were always the loudest ones. When we came back to MK on Sunday, there were about 100 at the rink to welcome us. It shows how far the club has come, I think.”