Milton Keynes Lightning’s hopes of lifting play-off silverware ended in disappointment with a 7-4 defeat to Manchester Phoenix.
In front of a capacity crowd of nearly 3,000 fans from all nine English Premier League clubs at Coventry Skydome Nick Poole’s men put up a brave battle but eventually were downed by two last minute empty net goals.
The scoreline may suggest a comfortable win for Tony Hand’s Phoenix side but that was not the case. Although Lightning never led the scoring they were always in touch with their opponents until the final few seconds.
What made the defeat harder to take was the fact that Phoenix then went onto to be convincingly beaten 5-2 by the city outfit’s biggest rivals Peterborough Phantoms in the following day’s final. Phantoms had already upset the form book by seeing off league and challenge cup winners, Telford Tigers 4-2 in their semi final.
Manchester opened the scoring against Lightning after just 2mins 47secs when Robin Kovar supplied Shaun Thompson to shoot from the left to the far side of goalie Stephen Wall.
Lightning got back on terms on 8mins 49secs with a Ross Bowers assisted goal by Curtis Huppe, but less than 30 seconds later Tony Hand’s side were back in front as Thompson struck again - James Archer making the supply at 9mins 11secs.
Less than two minutes later Lightning levelled once more when Blaz Emersic was the provider for Lewis Hook with a shot which Fone got a hand to but couldn’t stop from crossing the line.
The remainder of the first period failed to produce any further goals but the action was fast and furious at both ends of the ice.
For the start of the second period Huppe was moved from the third to second line to partner Adam Carr and Milan Kostourek while Leigh Jamieson switched to team up with combinations of Ross Bowers, Chris Wiggins and Grant McPherson.
But once more it was Phoenix who had the better start Kovar seized on a scoring chance at 21mins 2secs after Lightning failed to clear their zone quickly enough.
The game was all square again at 26mins 48secs when Carr supplied Huppe who put the puck in the net through the tightest of gaps.
Manchester were given a powerplay as Petr Horava was sin binned for slashing Kovar in the 29th minute but they were unable to make anything of the opportunity.
Phoenix did however go ahead again when James Archer set up Kovar to register from close range at 36mins 59secs.
Forty-two seconds from the second buzzer came the goal which, in effect ended Lightning’s hopes - Bakrlik the provider for Walker to make it 5-3 at the break. But that didn’t mean they were beaten.
Lightning faced a mammoth task going into the last session and their hopes were raised when Jamieson made the supply for Wiggins to touch in from close in at 46mins 34secs.
Two swift penalties for Manchester - Joe Graham and Kovar going to the penalty in quick succession - gave the trailing outfit the chance of a pair of powerplays. But Manchester held firm.
With 1min 44secs remaining Phoenix called a time out to upset Lightning’s rhythm.
Nevertheless Wall was taken off for the extra skater with 1min 10secs left - leading to the first of the empty net goals by Manchester, Bakrlik winning the puck in the neutral zone to score on 59mins 11secs
Lightning immediately called a time out with Wall staying off the ice as Lightning made one last ditch effort. But it was ended with Archer registering Manchester’s seventh goal at 59mins 22secs thus killing any chance of a late equaliser. It gave the scoreline an unreal tinge a one or two goal gap might have been a better reflection of the game.
The curtain comes down on Lightning’s season with two special events this weekend. On Friday the annual dinner and presentations will take place at Jurys Inn Hotel, Central Milton Keynes.
Twenty four hours later players past and present will pay tribute in a testimonial match at MK Arena for captain Carr. He has been the rock on which Lightning teams have been built for the past 12 years.
Former stars Andre Smulter, Monir Kalgoum and Joakim Wiklander are due to fly in from Sweden for the occasion while others travel from all over the country. Unfortunately Lightning’s first captain Dwayne Newman and Lukas Zatopek will be unable to be present as their current team, Chelmsford Chieftains are involved in English National League play-off action.