CZECH defenceman Lukas Zatopek bagged his first goal for Lightning in more than a month to end his team’s four-match losing run with a 3-2 win against Bracknell Bees on Saturday.
Zatopek’s overtime winner was his first goal for the club since January 2 – and sent the relieved home supporters into raptures at Planet Ice.
However, any hopes from fans that the monkey was finally off Lightning’s back were premature as Nick Poole’s men went down by an identical score at an injury weakened Basingstoke Bison the following day – keeping the city side fifth in the EPL table.
Lightning now go into the second leg of their English Premier League Cup semi final against Sheffield Steeldogs at Planet Ice on Thursday night with a 1-0 deficit and knowing that victory could kick-start the rest of their season.
Then on Saturday Swindon Wildcats make their final visit of the league season to the city before Lightning travel north to Manchester Phoenix for the final time on Sunday.
In truth Saturday’s victory over Bracknell should have been settled far earlier in the match as Lightning dominated the first period and could have easily been three goals to the good by the first break.
As it was they had only a solitary goal to show for their efforts. Leigh Jamieson had already seen a one-on-one effort saved by goalie Tom Annetts when he put the hosts ahead after 5mins 9secs.
Finn Tuomas Tikkanen began the move with his pass to Blaz Emersic on the left and his cross was converted by the Milton Keynes born player.
A minute or so later both teams were reduced to four skaters after Michael Wales and Bees Rick Skene clashed, with both sent to the sin bin. Again Jamieson was in the action and was unlucky not to score.
Bees’ first real chance didn’t come until the eighth minute of the game – Shaun Thompson finally testing home goalie Alex Mettam. Before the interval both Tikkanen and Ross Green had shots fly just over the bar.
Lewis Christie, Emersic and Adam Carr all had decent efforts early in the middle session before Bees finally got into their stride. Michael Bowman was the provider for Thompson to score – Bees’ first opportunity of the second period – at 27mins 27secs.
Lightning had a quick chance to get back in front when Andy Munroe was called for tripping but they wasted the powerplay.
It was still against the run of play when Bees edged ahead on the powerplay at 33min 54secs – Bowman redirecting Skene’s blue line shot – as Zatopek sat out a slashing penalty.
The goal visibly stunned Lightning and Bees ended the period on top. And it was not until 55mins 58secs that Lightning finally got back on terms when Jamieson set up Emersic from the left and the Slovenian blasted the puck home first time for a superbly taken goal.
The score remained equal at the buzzer, necessitating overtime. This time, unlike the previous marathon penalty shoot out between the sides back in October, the outcome was settled in 40 seconds by Zatopek’s goal – 15 seconds after Skene was penalised for slashing Emersic.
Lightning got off to a flying start the next evening at Bison who were reduced to 10 skaters, mainly due to injuries. Adam Brittle was the supplier for Jamieson to fire in after only 1min 14secs.
However, from then on it again turned out to be a disappointing night for the visitors. Grant McPherson was handed a total of four minutes in penalties for roughing and tripping, giving Bison a powerplay from which Kurt Reynolds scored after 9mins 32secs.
Wales was next in the penalty box but Bison were unable to make anything of it this time – and it was then the same for Lightning when Joe Miller was caught hooking before the first period ended 1-1.
The visitors then fell a goal in arrears when Chris Wiggins tipped in a Marcel Petran blue line shot on 26mins 26secs.
The deficit became two as Reynolds beat Mettam from the blue line after 30mins 20secs.
Wales gave Lightning hope with a quick response, his goal at 32mins 48secs set up by McPherson. But it was a false dawn as it was the last goal of the game.
The first leg of the EPL Cup semi final last Wednesday saw Lightning lose to a Chris Sykes goal after 56mins 18secs. Until then the city side had battled hard and had every chance of coming away from South Yorkshire with at least a draw.
That means Thursday night’s second leg is finely poised, and coach Poole is optimistic that Lightning can move a step closer to their first piece of silverware this season. The winners of the tie will face either Guildford or Manchester in a two-legged final later in the season.
“After a disappointing run of results lately we’ve made some definite improvements, and some of our most recent results really don’t reflect that,” he said.
“We know it’s a work in progress and that Sheffield are playing very well at the moment, so Thursday will be hard work – we won’t hide from that.
“But every single one of us is up for that challenge, and we’ll go into this game as we do every game – looking for the win.”