IT WAS so near yet so far for Milton Keynes Lightning as they fell at the final hurdle in their championship play-off battle with Guildford Flames at the Coventry Skydome on Sunday.
Lightning eventually went down 5-3 after clawing their way back from a 3-1 deficit at the end of the first period. However, a penalty shot goal and an empty net score put paid to Nick Poole’s team’s hopes of a shock victory against the league runners-up.
Although disappointed with the end result, Lightning and their big travelling army of fans could be proud of their performance which followed a 3-2 semi final victory in overtime against league champions Manchester Phoenix on Saturday.
Against Flames it was Lightning who took the lead when Monir Kalgoum took Andre Smulter’s pass from behind the net to score on 5mins 9secs. However, the goal was only given after a video replay - Flames claiming unsuccessfully that the Swede was in the goalie’s crease when he shot.
But it didn’t take Flames long to level when Andy Hemmings set up Ben Campbell in front of the net after 6mins 18secs. The Surrey side then went ahead on the powerplay after Leigh Jamieson was called for cross checking in the 10th minute - Nathan Rempel firing in within 30 seconds of the penalty.
And what appeared to be a killer blow came just 34 seconds from the first break when Campbell was on target again from close range to make it 3-1 to Flames.
Some teams would have buckled after that, but not Lightning who cut the arrears after Milos Melicherik was penalised for hooking Kalgoum. On the powerplay, Lukas Zatopek blasted in from the blue line and Gary Clarke got the deflecting touch to find the net and make it 3-2 at 28mins 14secs.
Both sides had powerplay chances towards the end of the second session but neither could make anything of them. It was not until the final 10 minutes that there was any further score with Lightning taking advantage after Flames goalie Mark Lee was penalised for delaying the game after diving on the puck way out of his crease while under pressure from Smulter.
Zatopek unleashed a slapshot which hit the boards behind the goal and Blaz Emersic had the easiest of tap ins at 50mins 48secs.
A couple of minutes later Zatopek impeded Martin Masa when he was clear away on goal with the result that Flames were awarded a penalty shot - taken and converted by Masa, giving them some breathing space.
With the clock now ticking down Lightning withdrew Barry Hollyhead for the extra skater and within 13 seconds Flames made the game safe with an empty net goal by Rempel - much to the dismay of the MK army of fans.
It was a bitter blow for fans and team alike who only a couple or so weeks ago looked to be unlikely finalists going into the play-offs.
Saturday’s win against Manchester was just as dramatic with Lightning taking a two goal lead thanks to two goals in three minutes in the second period - Grant McPherson the provider for Matt Towalski to score for the side after 30mins 3secs and Adam Brittle adding another from Kalgoum’s pass after 32mins 57secs.
Lightning looked on course for the final until Phoenix struck back twice in the last two minutes of regulation time. Pavel Gomeniuk got the first from Curtis Huppe’s set-up with just 1min 12secs remaining before Huppe supplied Tony Hand for equaliser with 48 seconds to go.
However, Jamieson put an end to Phoenix’s dream with the decisive third goal 19 seconds before the final buzzer of five minutes of overtime.