IT’S WIN or bust for Lightning as they approach the most important weekend of the season so far with the quarter finals of the English Premier League play-offs looming.
Lightning take on Slough Jets at home this Saturday and go to Berkshire for the return game in the two-legged tie 24 hours later.
At stake is a place in the finals weekend at Coventry Skydome on April 14 and 15 where the semi finals take place on the Saturday and the final the next day.
Lightning are urging as many of their supporters as possible to get through the Planet Ice doors on Saturday evening, and then make the trip to Slough for that all important away clash to give the team a psychological boost.
Few would be brave enough to try and predict the outcome of this weekend’s encounters after Lightning and Slough shared the spoils when they met twice last weekend in the last games of the regular league campaign.
What is certain though is that Lightning will need to contain the offensive threat of Slough’s Adam Calder, Doug Sheppard and Darius Pliskauskas to give themselves a chance of winning the tie.
They were responsible for five out of six Jets goals last weekend as Lightning slipped to a 4-3 home defeat on Saturday, but exacted revenge the next day with a 3-2 win on the road – those results seeing Lightning end the season one place behind Slough in 5th.
In both matches there was very little to choose between the two outfits – despite Lightning outshooting Jets to the tune of 47-23 at Planet Ice. Unfortunately too many of their efforts were straight at goalie Gregg Rockman as they failed to create enough mayhem in front of the net to force errors.
The following day Nick Poole’s team were outshot 45-37 – yet came out on top.
Slough struck an early blow on Saturday when Calder took Pliskauskas’ pass from the left and smashed it first time past goalie Alex Mettam with just 3mins 25secs gone.
Lightning had a powerplay chance 10 minutes later when Adam Greener was called for hooking Adam Brittle, but the best opportunity went begging as Poole fumbled the puck at the left post.
A few minutes later Sheppard won the puck in the Jets offensive zone and danger loomed, but was averted by Lightning who levelled the tie when Leigh Jamieson’s great set up saw Blaz Emersic fire past his old club’s netminder on 17mins 25secs.
The home side had a further one man advantage in the final minute of the period when former MK defenceman Mindy Kieras was penalised for interference, but again they could make nothing of the chance spilling into the second session.
However, Lightning did get the go ahead goal when Emersic went up the left and somehow squeezed the puck behind Rockman into the net on 34mins 31secs.
Jets’ response was rapid. Despite being a man down with Joe Greener sin binned for slashing, Alex Symonds sent Calder away to blast high into the goal for a short handed equaliser after 36mins 41secs.
But Lightning weren’t in the mood to give in and Poole was the supplier for Jamie Line to register thanks to sheer determination after 49mins 56secs.
The goal was disputed – wrongly – by Jets who claimed the net had come off its moorings before the shot went in.
But the hosts’ were finally defeated when Sam Waller put Pliskauskas away and the Lithuanian was given far too much space for Slough’s fourth goal 3mins 15secs from the buzzer.
Lightning called a timeout with just 26 seconds remaining but were unable to take off Mettam for the extra skater until two seconds from time – far too late to make a difference.
The next day it was again Jets who were quickest off the mark with player coach Sheppard scoring from Ryan Watt’s assist after 7mins 30secs.
Back came Lightning with a rare Michael Wales goal after 14mins 2secs – his sixth of the year – thanks to Poole’s supply.
And Lightning went into the first break 2-1 in front as man of the match Jamieson converted Tuomas Tikkanen’s set-up with nine seconds left.
The visitors’ penalty kill unit had to be at their best in the opening minutes of the second session when Poole was twice sin binned for hooking and tripping but it held firm. However, Lightning did no better when Adam Greener served time for hooking.
Jamieson then put daylight between the sides on 36mins 2secs as he was supplied by Emersic to make it 3-1 – the score at the next interval.
But the third period saw Lightning able to hold onto their lead as Slough sought to beat goalie Barry Hollyhead.
When they did so it was too late in the game – Sheppard sending Joe Greener’s pass into the back of the net with just 3mins 15secs remaining.
Jets immediately called a timeout but were unable to get an equaliser as Lightning grabbed a morale boosting victory – one which gives coach Poole hope of his side beating Slough over two legs this weekend.
“We want to qualify for Coventry because we know exactly how much it means to our supporters,” he said.
“They have stood by us all season, even when things got tough after Christmas, and obviously it means a lot for everyone at the club to qualify.
“Coventry is a huge weekend and once you’re there, anything can happen. But we need to get there first, so that’s what we’re concentrating on for now – we can’t wait to get started.”
Poole is aware of the threat Slough pose, especially on the big occasion. But he thinks he knows how to beat them – and he should given that Lightning have a 4-2 record over the men from Berkshire this season.
“Slough are a very good team, who we more than matched over six periods last weekend,” he said. “But despite everything on Saturday, we let our guard down for a couple of split-second lapses, and let them get crucial goals even though we had more chances.
“So we know what we need to do this weekend to beat them over two legs and make sure it’s us going to Coventry at their expense – 100 per cent concentration from the start to finish, and to be more clinical in front of goal.
“Over the first two periods on Saturday we outshot them by an aggregate three to one, which shows you what an incredible workrate we put in.
“We’ll be looking for a better conversion rate this weekend – and we know we can do it because we’ve scored a lot of goals in the last few weeks.
“Obviously we were disappointed to lose on Saturday, but we didn’t dwell on it – we put it behind us and put it right on Sunday, and now we’re going into the quarter finals on the back of a win.”
The other quarter finals see champions Guildford Flames taking on Peterborough Phantoms, Manchester Phoenix do battle against Swindon Wildcats and Sheffield Steeldogs face Basingstoke Bison, with the finals weekend on April 14 and 15.