Lightning swing axe after shutout defeat

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SLOVAKIAN forward Juraj Gracik has been axed by MK Lightning just days before the English Premier League’s transfer deadline of January 31, and just days after the city side failed to score in a home game for the first time in almost four years.

In his place the second in the table club have signed 31-year-old Finn Tuomas Tikkanen who was until a few weeks ago plying his trade with the French second tier side HC Mont Blanc, where he scored 10 goals and six assists in 14 games.

Gracik was third in the Lightning points standings with 14 goals and 24 assists from 32 games.

According to the Mont Blanc club’s website, Tikkanen was released for financial reasons and has since played a game for Bewe in his native homeland.

Lightning fans will be hoping Tikkanen is as prolific as former star Gary Clarke – the Finn wore the same number 14 as him in Mont Blanc.

And Tikkanen is set to make his debut on Saturday when Lightning entertain Basingstoke Bison at Planet Ice. Sunday sees the city side with a rare day off.

Head coach Nick Poole said: “While we’re very pleased with our current league position, we need to give ourselves and our supporters the very best chance of winning the three trophies we’re competing for.

“At times our offence has struggled – in the first half of the season our powerplay spluttered, and sometimes we now struggle to score goals whilst five on five.

“At times we’ve lacked a cutting edge late in games to equalise or go ahead. I know all the players are determined to win some silverware, and we hope this change improves our chances.

“This decision was extremely difficult, as ‘George’ (Juraj) has been a true professional from start to finish. He’s given us everything he had and fitted in very well with the team ethos – it’s always sad to see a player go who has worked tirelessly for the team.

“Everyone here wishes Juraj the very best for the future and we thank him for all of his efforts while in MK.”

Evidence of how Lightning’s attack has struggled lately was displayed on Saturday when the team were shutout for the first team at home since March 20, 2008 with a 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Steeldogs.

In previous visits to Planet Ice this year Steeldogs adopted a defensive strategy which was hard to break down. So it was vital for Lightning to get an early breakthrough.

Unfortunately it was Steeldogs who got the quick goal when they were presented with a five on three powerplay with Blaz Emersic and Nick Poole were despatched to the sin bin in quick succession.

Goalie Barry Hollyhead blocked Ben Morgan’s initial effort but Edgars Bebris was there to follow up at 3mins 45secs.

Sheffield went further ahead when Janis Ozolins danced his way up the left and came from behind goal, almost unchallenged, to net 1min 23secs before the first break.

If the first goal was a blow then the second was a fatal one as Lightning were unable to find a way through during both of the next two periods, despite a number of powerplay chances.

Thankfully, due to Steeldogs’ reluctance to go forward in numbers, the home team’s penalty kill units did their job well.

But it was not a night to remember with what was probably Lightning’s worst display of the campaign.

The following evening the tables were turned though as Lightning went to Basingstoke Bison and used a tight defensive strategy to gain two morale boosting points with a 2-0 victory.

Once more though there was some concern that Lightning’s powerplay was ineffective on three man advantage spells in the first period which ended 0-0.

It took just 57 seconds of the second period for Poole to set up Leigh Jamieson for the go ahead goal. And with only one powerplay apiece there were few real chances for another goal before the next interval as Lightning were heavily outshot.

Bison were unable to make anything of two penalties on Adam Carr for slashing and hooking in the final quarter of an hour.

With the seconds ticking down the Hampshire outfit withdrew netminder Matt Colclough for the extra skater in a bid for the equaliser. Instead it enabled defenceman Green to bag his first goal of the season with 38secs remaining – it was also his first empty net goal for Lightning – to seal the points.

>> Lightning play the first leg of their EPL Cup semi final at Sheffield on February 8 with the return leg at Planet Ice on February 16.