Milton Keynes Lightning demonstrated they will be no pushovers as they step up to the Elite League when they took on Coventry Blaze in full blooded pre-season challenge games at the weekend.
Honours ended even with Lightning claiming an overtime 4-3 victory at MK Arena on Saturday followed by a 5-4 success for Blaze at the Skydome the next day.
But for the coaches of both teams – MK boss Pete Russell in particular - the results will matter less than the chance to analysis the talents of the 15 new signings, mostly Canadian and American, brought in to strengthen the team for the challenges of life in a league which is probably two tiers above the level of the now defunct English Premier League.
The weekend clashes may have only been challenge matches but they were played at full pace with no holding back in physical contact.
For much of Saturday’s game at least Lightning they looked the better of the two teams. It was only in the third period that perhaps Lightning tired a little. Blaze were then able to level after the hosts had established a 3-0 lead which was reduced to a single goal advantage by the second break.
But the visitors’ hopes were demolished when – in three on three sudden death overtime – Christian Isackson raced up ice to set up man of the match captain Kevin King to send the puck past goalie Brython Preece for the winner at 62mins 50secs.
It was King who had opened Lightning’s account on 14mins 50secs while his side were on a powerplay resulting from an interference call on Blaze’s Dax Lauwers
Lightning appeared to have scored a second goal in the 18th minute when Guillaume Doucet fired in on goal. However a goal line television replay showed that the puck hit the crossbar and did not cross the line – the technology a feature which the Elite League has embraced.
The hosts quickly doubled their advantage early in the second period as Ben Foster unleashed a wicked shot which netminder Kevin Nastiuk misjudged as the puck hit the net on 21mins 26secs.
Less than two minutes later Blaze captain Jordan Pietrus was penalised for holding – giving Lightning another powerplay from which they bagged their third strike within 43 seconds through Carl Hudson to put the home side in control.
Blaze eventually hit back when goalie Przemy Odrobny was caught out of position as Brett Robinson scored unassisted at 36mins 9secs.
Gaelan Patterson gave the score some respectability for Blaze when he reduced the deficit to a single goal on 39mins 45secs
Both teams changed netminders for the start of the final session – Jordan Hedley replacing Odrobny and Preece taking over from Nastiuk.
Hedley in particular did not disgrace himself , making made a brilliant block from Marc-Olivier Vallerand before being unable to deny the same player for the equaliser on 54mins 42secs.
Into overtime Isackson set up King to secure the win for the hosts.
The next evening Keynes Lightning were edged out by the odd goal at Coventry’s Skydome Arena.
There was early concern for Lightning as Odrobny was withdrawn after just 2mins 25secs following treatment for an injury while going down for a full length save. That gave number two goalie Hedley his chance – and he didn’t disgrace, making some impressive saves in a fine display.
It was Blaze who opened their account on 14mins 8secs when Brett Robinson fired home. Just 1min 4secs later Lightning hit back, Denny Kearney defeating Nastiuk.
Coventry went in front again after 25mins 13secs when Ben Lake’s shot eluded Hedley.
Lightning fell further behind when Lake was impeded en route to goal on 33mins 41secs – the same player successfully converting the penalty shot.
But almost immediately the gap was closed to one again after Ben Foster set up Kyle Essery for the visitors’ second goal on 34mins 31secs.
The home outfit again stretched the lead to two after Gustav Ahnelöv registered on 47mins 11secs.
This time the response was even more immediate with Ludwig Karlsson, supplied by Isackson, sending a shot past Preece who had replaced Nastiuk in goal at the start of the third.
Although Blaze were thwarted on the powerplay resulting from a slashing call on Gibson they soon made it 5-3 at 51mins 16secs with Lake scoring his second goal of the game.
Lightning continued to battle and they were rewarded when Essery struck again at 56mins 12secs to make it 5-4.
Russell called a timeout inside the final two minutes but despite withdrawing Hedley in favour of the extra skater for much of the remaining time his team were unable to breach the Blaze defence for the equaliser.
Saturday sees Guildford Flames – who have moved up to the Elite League with Lightning – visit MK Arena for a challenge match, face off 7pm. With increased crowds this season fans are being advised to obtain their tickets from MK Arena in advance of the game – they are also available online, subject a booking fee.