Milton Keynes Lightning ended their inaugural home Elite League campaign on a high with a Tommy Mele inspired 5-2 victory over Fife Flyers.
Man of the match Mele bagged a straight hat-trick to steer Lightning to victory and give head coach Peter Russell and assistant coach Blaz Emersic the perfect send off from the home faithful at MK Arena on Saturday. Both Russell and Emersic are not being retained next year.
At the conclusion of the game both were thanked for their service with presentations by members of the Lightning Supporters Club. Russell joined the club as coach three years ago while Emersic signed for the team as a player in early 2011 and took up bench duties after retiring last year.
But Lightning were unable to finish the season with victory as they lost 7-3 at league champions Cardiff Devils on Sunday.
Saturday’s match was preceded by the presentation by supporters club officials of a cheque for £125,000 to owners Graham and Monica Moody – the proceeds of fund raising throughout the season.
Once the game was under way it was Flyers who struck first after Lewis Hook was penalised for tripping –Danick Gauthier’s shot which appeared to go into the net off goalie Henry Pacl on 17mins 18secs.
The balance of the game swung Lightning’s way in less than a minute when Kyle Essery’s pass was fired, first time, past goalie Jordan Marr by Ben Foster on 27mins 46secs.
Fifty-seven seconds later Denny Kearney put the home outfit in front – firing in on the rebound after Kevin King’s effort from the right had been pushed away by Marr.
The home outfit edged further in front within 2mins 12secs of the start of the third period when Mele poked the puck in at the right hand post following Flyers’ failure to clear their zone. However Lightning were a touch fortunate not to have the goal ruled out by referee Chris Wells as the net appeared to be slightly off its moorings before the puck crossed the line.
With just over eight minutes to the final buzzer Flyers gave themselves hope of turning the game around when Chase Schaber made it 3-2 at 51mins 49secs.
The hosts added a fourth goal on 57mins 4secs after Guillaume Doucet put Mele in the clear to go one on one with Marr.
In a last fling of the dice Marr was withdrawn for the extra skater but it backfired when Kearney unselfishly passed to Mele to complete his hat-trick with an empty net goal 16 seconds from the buzzer.
At Ice Arena Wales a trio of third period goals put an end to a battling performance from Lightning. Lightning took two coaches of supporters to Ice Arena Wales and they witnessed their heroes fight back from going four goals behind by the 27th minute to trail by just a single goal at the second break.
In the end the visitors couldn’t match the strength in depth of the high flying Devils who were celebrating their second league title success in a row.
In Russell and Emersic’s last game in charge Lightning went behind to a Paul Crowder goal on 6mins 43secs. Matt Pope made it 2-0 1min 33secs before the break.
Even less time elapsed between the beginning of the middle session and Cardiff’s third goal when Justin Faryna was on target – the strike timed at 21mins 18secs.
Things got even worse for the travelling side and their fans when Josh Batch got in on the scoring act after 27mins 16secs.
Then came Lightning’s revival – thanks in part to a five on three powerplay after Andrew Lord followed Joey Haddad to the sin bin – both for slashing.
First Kearney fed King to slot in off his own rebound after 29mins 18secs before a 35th minute high stick call on Paul Phillips was successfully defended. Seconds after his return to the ice Mele fed Evan Stoflet to make it 4-2 at 37mins 35secs.
Just over a minute later the deficit was reduced to one goal with James Griffin and King the providers for Quin Pompi to register past goalie Thomas Murdy – the strike timed at 38mins 52secs.
Unfortunately revival didn’t last into the third session – Devils began to pull away after Stoflet was penalised for interference in the 45th minute. At 45mins 51secs, Gleason Fournier beat netminder Jordan Hedley who had replaced Pacl soon after Cardiff’s fourth goal.
Joey Martin became Devils’ sixth scorer of the night when he bagged his team’s next goal after 50mins 2secs before the champions completed their tally with Lord scoring.
Lightning’s first season in the Elite League has certainly been a tough, learning experience – the lack of strength in depth compared with sides such as Cardiff, Nottingham and Manchester most telling when a spate of injuries hit the side a couple of months into the campaign. Further investment is needed before MK can challenge for honours.