A spectacular third period collapse saw Milton Keynes Lightning crash to an 8-5 defeat in their final match up against Coventry Blaze at MK Arena on Sunday.
At full strength for the first time since the beginning of January the hosts stunned Blaze by taking a two goal lead by the eighth minute. That prompted a swift time out by the visitors’ coach Danny Stewart and although his side steadied the ship to draw level it was Lightning who led 3-2 at the first break and 4-3 at the second intermission.
It was Lightning’s only game of the weekend for the city outfit whose hopes of a play-off spot have surely gone, despite the mathematical possibility.
Against Blaze with just over 12 minutes remaining it was still Lightning who looked the more likely to edge the battle. Then came three quick powerplays from which Blaze capitalised on every one to surge into a 7-5 lead. Amazingly there was no time out from the Lightning bench.
When Miika Wiikman was withdrawn from the home net in favour of the extra skater the rivals from the Midlands were able to put the icing on their win with an empty net goal 41 seconds from the final buzzer.
Yet it all looked so different early on as the return of forward Tommy Mele, since breaking his foot in early January, allowed coach Peter Russell to ice three strong lines.
The game was just 2mins 5secs old when Blaze were penalised for having too many men on the ice and from the resulting powerplay, with netminder Kevin Nastiuk screened, it was Mele who supplied Carl Hudson to blast home from the blue line on 3mins 23secs.
In the following minutes most of the chances went to Lightning and their efforts were rewarded when Denny Kearney set up Kevin King on the right to make it 2-0 after 8mins 47secs.
Blaze called a time out and cut the deficit on 13mins 56secs when Ben Lake made the pass to Marc-Olivier Vallerand who had space to fire an upstairs shot into the goal to the right of Wiikman.
There was an element of confusion about Blaze’s equaliser on 15mins 35secs with Alex Barron’s long pass met by Luke Ferrara. His shot went across goal behind Wiikman – the official signalling a goal but then deciding to consult the video replay when the red goal light was not put on. Unfortunately the video technology malfunctioned so the officials relied on their own judgement to award the score.
Unperturbed Lightning hit back on the powerplay after Gustav Ahnelöv was sin binned for tripping with Lewis Hook’s blast towards goal being redirected into the net by Guillaume Doucet 42 seconds from the break.
Early in the second Lightning sought to increase their lead, Hudson firing past the post before Barron put Doucet under pressure, preventing him from getting a better shot on goal. Then Blaze turned up the gas with Wiikman pulling off saves from Brett Robinson, Vallerand and Danick Paquette.
Eventually Blaze’s hard work paid off – thanks to a holding penalty on King which allowed Ferrara to set up Lake for the first of his two goals at 32mins 31secs.
Back came Lightning though to edge the middle stanza with a neat Francis Verreault-Paul back pass reaching Mele to shoot home at 35mins 52secs while Lake was serving time for tripping..
Blaze squared things up again 5mins 4secs into the final session when Ross Venus was allowed to skate up the right unimpeded and beat Wiikman with a shot which he partially blocked but couldn’t stop the puck from going over the goal line.
Lightning seized the lead one more time with hard worked goal which saw Hook as provider for Verreault-Paul on 47mins 52secs.
Three powerplays for Blaze turned the game on its head. Jonathan Boxill incurred two quick penalties – one for delaying the game by hitting puck over the Plexiglas and the other for slashing. Blaze capitalised on both through Ferrara after 49mins 41secs and Lake on 53mins 3secs.
The hosts had hardly time to recover from the shock when Hook was dealt a slashing call and again, with the man advantage, Ferrara completed his hat-trick on 54mins 37secs.
In a slim hope of gaining something from the game Wiikman was taken off with just over two minutes to go and that resulted in Brett Robinson’s empty net strike at 59mins 19secs to compound a disappointing night.