MK Lightning closed the gap at the top of the English Premier League to three points with a brace of well-deserved victories against closest rivals Peterborough Phantoms over the Christmas weekend.
Phantoms who top the table went into the weekend with a seven point advantage over Lightning but the pair of wins – both by 4-2 score lines – have thrown the title race wide open again.
Lightning have played three games more than the Cambridgeshire outfit but with just under half the season to come the championship race is not over – Basingstoke Bison in second spot also strong contenders.
Just as importantly the wins will serve as morale boosters for the upcoming English Premier League Cup semi-final clashes with Phantoms at home on January 13 and away a week later. Between now and then there’s also the matter of another away league encounter with Slava Koulikov’s side on January 10.
Games between Lightning and Phantoms are always fiercely fought affairs and both weekend meetings met with expectations – each not decided until the latter stages.
Coach Pete Russell made changes for the Boxing Day clash with Leigh Jamieson switching back to defence – immediately giving it a more assured look. Jordan Cownie joined Markku Tahtinen and Frankie Bakrlik on the first line with Bobby Chamberlain, Blaz Emersic and Lewis Hook forming the second line – the third comprising Jack Watkins, Adam Carr and Grant McPherson.
It took just 2mins 27secs for the first penalties to be called when Watkins and Will Weldon clashed – the MK man sin binned for cross checking while his opponent served time for roughing.
Lightning got the breakthrough when Peterborough had two quick penalties, giving the hosts a two man advantage.
Brad Moore was caught clipping Bakrlik on 12mins 21secs – and 25 seconds later Tom Norton joined him in the cooler for boarding. Bakrlik fed Tahtinen in front of goal to beat goalie Janis Auzins on 13mins 30secs for the powerplay opener.
One second from the end of the five on four powerplay Martti Jarventie supplied Bakrlik for a blue line rocket shot past Auzins.
Phantoms cut the deficit within 2mins 55secs of the restart with a fluke goal with goalie Dean Skinns appearing to have stopped Lloyd Gibson’s effort before it crept over the line.
Lightning restored the two goal gap on 24mins 42secs when Emersic fed Hook to unleash a shot high to right of Auzins.
Phantoms got their second goal on 35mins 58secs when scorer Weldon registered from close range.
However Lightning eventually killed off Phantoms when man of the match Bakrlik won possession in the neutral zone and beat Auzins at 56mins 48secs to make it 4-2. Phantoms then withdrew Auzins for the extra skater but it made no difference.
The following day an Adam Carr empty net goal sealed a 4-2 victory at Bretton.
It did not take long for the first fight to ensue with Jordan Cownie, uncharacteristically, dropping gloves to do battle with Phantoms Tom Norton in the fourth minute.
Both combatants received four minutes in the sin bin and they were joined by Frankie Bakrlik who was called for holding the opponent’s stick – giving the hosts what proved to be an unfruitful powerplay.
Back at even strength though, the home outfit opened their account through Martins Susters at 6mins 23secs.
Just over two minutes later Lightning were level when Cownie and Markku Tahtinen had a hand in Bakrlik’s goal on 8mins 33secs.
A further Phantoms powerplay with Martti Jarventie and Lewis Christie in the cooler came to nothing before the edged in front after 13mins 58secs with a Bakrlik assisted goal for former Peterborough player Lewis Hook.
The lead lasted 22 seconds with Ales Padelek scoring at 14mins 20secs.
Lightning went ahead again on a four on three powerplay thanks to Bakrlik on 16mins 12secs.
Grant McPherson and Baranyk did not even wait for the second session to get under way before they had a disagreement, delaying the game.
The second period eventually ended the same way as the first did with Lightning still edging it at 3-2.
Scott had the early chance for Phantoms during a spell of pressure on the MK net and the same player threatened in the final ten minutes.
Peterborough called a time out with about four minutes to go and, with 90 seconds remaining, Auzins was withdrawn for the extra skater – giving Carr the opportunity score on the empty net seven seconds from the end to make it 4-2.