IT says a lot about MK Thunder’s improvement in the last three months that there was immense disappointment in losing out by the odd goal in nine against league leaders Wightlink Raiders.
The fact that Raiders’ game winning goal was hotly disputed and in the last few minutes of play made the result all the more difficult to take after another excellent Thunder performance.
Their weekend got off to a winning start though, with a 6-2 victory on the road in Bristol where the gulf in quality was obvious.
Pitbulls play a very aggressive style of hockey in their own barn, but Thunder have a confidence about them now which overcomes any such intimidation. And with netminder Mark Woolf once again on top form between the pipes, the visitors set about proving a point to Bristol after losing there back in October.
Another Matt Roberts goal opened the scoring for Thunder mid-way through the opening period with a snap-shot from the blue line, Paul Gore and Jamie Randall with the assists.
Paul Jamieson made it 2-0 less than a minute later when a well timed pass out of defence from Nidal Phillips found Harrison Goode free and Jamieson skaking through to take the return pass.
Alan Amour pulled a goal back for Pitbulls only for Ross Bowers to restore the two-goal lead five minutes later with a short handed break away goal while Pitbulls were on a powerplay. A defensive lapse let Bristol in just before the first break with Steve Osman free in front of Thunder’s goal to make it 3-2.
Thunder stepped up a gear in the second period and scored three unanswered goals to take the game out of the hosts’ reach. Maros Stefanco - who created problems all night for Pitbulls - skated through almost to the goal post and slid the puck across goal for Bowers to tap home his second and make it 4-2.
Martyn Snape jabbed home the puck during a goal-mouth scramble to make it 5-2, before Stefanco - diving across Pitbulls’ netminder - slotted home Thunder’s sixth having been put through by Bowers and Randall.
At 6-2 up with a period to go, Thunder backed off and played sensible defensive hockey mindful of the big game they faced the next day. So the period went 0-0 and Thunder came away with a 6-2 win - a thoroughly professional performance setting them up perfectly for Sunday’s showdown with the leaders.
Wightlink rolled into town on a seven-game winning streak, and for Thunder it would be a huge test of their own new found confidence. But in a fairly even opening period Thunder found themselves two goals down when their only two mistakes were severely punished by Raiders.
Jason Corrie scored the first after intercepting the puck on his own blue line and skating through one-on-one against Woolf, and Robbie Brown made it 2-0 when he wasn’t picked up in front of goal.
For the second night running Thunder stepped up a gear in the second period and really shook Raiders, taking the game to them with some good offensive passing hockey. Gore got one back with a powerplay goal within 30 seconds of the restart, Randall and Bowers the providers.
A Raiders powerplay goal from player coach Jeremy Cornish made it 1-3 before a brace of Bowers goals levelled it at 3-3 by the end of the second. Thunder’s top line of Bowers, Randall and Stefanco are working well together now and the points are flowing from all three.
With the game finely balanced going into the final period it became all out end-to-end hockey with chances for both teams. It was Raiders who once again took the lead with a delayed penalty goal from Richard Facey, but eventually Thunder’s intense pressure paid off and Stefanco made it 4-4 with just six minutes to go.
But then came the controversy, with Thunder claiming that keeper Woolf had the puck covered, Raiders had men in the crease, and that the goal was off its moorings,
However, the officials gave the goal - much to the amazement of most in the rink - It was not what Thunder deserved, although the record books will show a 5-4 loss.