Few would have rated Milton Keynes Lightning’s chances going into their double header against Elite League title contenders, Cardiff Devils, at the weekend. And so it proved – but beleaguered bottom of the table Lightning refused to roll over and die in either contest in Wales on Saturday or at Planet Ice on Sunday.
They may have lost the first game 6-5 and the return clash 6-4 but, short of players, MK battled to the end.
At the Viola Arena they took a shock 4-1 lead before succumbing to the reigning league champions and the following day fought back from what looked like an impossible 5-1 first period margin.
Two days before the trip to Wales Lightning were rocked by the sudden departure of defenceman – and erstwhile joint coach - Ryan Lannon to a Finnish club. On Saturday they suffered a further blow when forward Radek Meidl sustained a long term ‘upper body’ injury which required hospital treatment and is likely to end his season.
With no replacements forthcoming Lightning’s squad is now reduced to 16 players – including two netminders for the remaining 13 games.
Saturday’s game was only eventually settled by a 53rd minute powerplay goal after MK defenceman Martin Mazanec was thrown out of the game on a match penalty for head-butting. That penalty was later downgraded to allow Mazanec to play the next day
Lightning quickly fell behind when Stephen Dixon put the hosts ahead after 2mins 29secs.
But Lightning were soon back in the game when Robbie Baillargeon equalised after 4mins 35secs before they took the lead on 11mins 29secs when Baillargeon netted. Coach Tim Wallace then extended the advantage to 3-1 before the first break. David Norris’ struck at 21mins 59secs to make the gap three goals.
Devils started to fightback with Joey Martin cutting the deficit on 24mins 54secs before Sean Bentivoglio made it 4-3 just over a minute later at 26mins 15secs.
Defenceman Mark Richardson fired home past goalie Patrick Killeen to equalise after 31mins 26secs. MK then stood firm when Ivan Šijan was called for holding before they edged in front again for the final time on 37mins 29secs through an Andreas Valdix powerplay goal while Haddad was in the box for hooking.
It was not until the third session that Devils – icing a full complement of 20 players from their 25 strong roster - finally equalised again 25 seconds after the face off, again Martin was on target.
The defining moment came on 51mins 6secs when Mazanec and Mike Hedden clashed. The Devils forward received two minutes for roughing while Lightning’s big Czech defenceman was sent for an early shower for head butting. From the resulting powerplay Martin completed his hat-trick to make it 6-5 to the hosts
In the game the next day MK trailed 5-1 at the end of the first period and they looked like they were in for a hammering. But they fought back to a 6-4 deficit at the second interval, a score which proved to be the final result.
And their efforts were fully appreciated by the near 1,800 crowd, the vast majority of whom rose to their feet to produce a deafening chant in support of their heroes at the end of the game. It was as if Lightning were top of the Elite League and Cardiff at the bottom – not the other way round.
Sunday’s encounter began with a bang as Devils found themselves with two players in the sin bin within the first 20 seconds – Matt Pope being called for roughing after just six seconds and Mark Louis going for tripping on 19 seconds. That gave the hosts a five on three powerplay from which Nelson Armstrong blasted home to put his team in front after 44 seconds
Devils redressed the balance with Martin firing high into the net after 3mins 14secs. With the sides four on four Dixon defeated Killeen 11 seconds later before Bryce Reddick struck again for the visitors with only 7mins 49secs gone.
Killeen was caught completely out of position when Joey Haddad put the puck into what was effectively an empty net after 17mins 1secs.
With 18mins 51secs gone James Livingston proved it was not Killeen’s night when he found a gap to the right of the goalie for a weak goal. – only awarded after after the officials consulted a video replay on the suspicion of goaltender interference.
At the start of the second period Adam Goss replaced Killeen and the fightback began from the most unlikeliest of sources as defenceman James Griffin scored his first MK Elite League goal at 29mins 33secs.
Lightning then scored on a five on three powerplay through Michael Fine with an ugly goal in a goalmouth scramble after 34mins 45secs.
Charles Linglet beat Goss to restore Devils’ lead on 38mins 4secs, only for Cole Shudra to fire home with 1mins 10secs to the second buzzer to make it 6-4, the final result.