Lightning's Elite League stint ends with defeat

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent
Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Milton Keynes Lightning’s two year expedition into the top flight of British ice hockey drew to a close with an emotional farewell at Planet Ice on Sunday in which Sheffield Steelers’ large army of travelling supporters played their part.

For several minutes after their team had left the ice following the visitors’ 4-1 victory the Steelers fans stayed to join in with the home faithful’s deafening chants of ‘Let’s Go Lightning’ – demonstrating the huge respect MK’s supporters have accrued up and down the country during the brief foray of mixing with the best teams in the country.

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Twenty-four hours earlier more than two coaches full of Lightning fans had made the trip to Cardiff Devils, only to see the team demolished in a 9-1 defeat to the league title contenders who then went on to a shock 3-1 defeat at Coventry Blaze on Sunday. That result allowed Belfast Giants to claim the Elite League crown while celebrating their annual awards night.

Lightning had started the trio of weekend games with a 5-3 loss to Manchester Storm at Planet Ice on Friday.

So sadly the dream is over – for now – Lightning’s owners discovering what the bosses of Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees and Hull’s former team had found out before them, life in the top echelons requires deep pockets to sustain. Only with the financial backing Guildford Flames are said to boast can a southern-based small rink team survive.

It’s back next season to doing battle with the aforementioned clubs in a National League which may be of similar quality to Lightning’s former home in the English Premier League – apart from the absence of three of five imports.

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

While Lightning’s withdrawal from the Elite League was tinged with sadness the departure from the EPL in a season in which MK won both the EPL Cup and play-offs was far more emotional, largely because fans thought they had witnessed the last of almost of the Brits who had served the club so well. Little did they know that they would be on their radar again two years later – albeit perhaps playing for opposition teams.

This year’s Lightning players have become heroes in their own way – battling against the odds in a team which was seriously under-resourced from the moment the first puck dropped in August. Following coach Doug McKay’s departure in November his replacements Ryan Lannon and more especially Tim Wallace moulded the depleted squad into a team which was stronger than the sum of its parts.

Sadly that was not enough to produce enough wins to lift Lightning off the bottom of the table – Sheffield handing out the latest lesson with a roster which had almost as many players resting on the bench as MK had in their entire team. Those numbers – and quality counted – when it mattered most as the game went on.

Yet for all that it took until 18mins 8secs before Steelers eventually broke Lightning’s resolve after a breath-taking first period. Tanner Eberle brought a great save from goalie Patrick Killeen but the netminder could not stop the Canadian winger’s follow up from close range.

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Lightning vs Steelers | Pic: Tony Sargent

Killeen was caught out again by Jordan Owens’ shot which crashed in from the left after 25mins 29secs while Sheffield were short-handed.

Ryan Martinelli shot over Killeen’s arm high into the goal to take Sheffield’s tally to three without reply on 34mins 40secs.

It was not until Ben O’Connor was called for holding in the 50th minute that Lightning bagged their consolation goal – Golovkovs’ angled pass finding Wallace just inside the blue line to blast through traffic at 52mins 56secs.

With Killeen off the ice in favour of the extra skater John Armstrong scored on the empty net with 1min 36secs remaining.

Following the buzzer the Lightning squad returned to the ice as Wallace paid tribute to the fans who have supported them through thick and thin – mostly the latter – this year. In return the near 2,000 strong crowd remained, Steelers fans included, to make their feelings known with chants which seemed to go on forever.

Cardiff had seven different scorers in their win against Lightning – the visitors’ only goal coming from James Griffin while Michael Fine, Wallace and Cole Shudra were on target in the loss to Manchester.