More than two thousand fans packed into Planet Ice to welcome the new look Milton Keynes Lightning as they took on Sheffield Steeldogs in a pre-season challenge game on Saturday.
the club with the move down from the Elite League to the second tier National Ice Hockey League were totally unfounded. The crowd of 2,154 was almost certainly a record for a pre-season challenge game – the arena’s official capacity being 2,300.
While the result of Saturday’s game – a 6-5 defeat - and the 4-3 loss in the return match at Sheffield on Sunday may have disappointed some there were plenty of positives for new coach, Lewis Clifford, to ponder.
Clifford was appointed before the previous owners, the Moodys, were ousted with a new consortium taking over. Having already signed several players under the old regime he then had to reappoint the same players for the new owners.
While at least ten of last year Steeldogs’ roster that reached the semi-finals of the National Ice Hockey League play-offs started the weekend’s encounters Lightning had just two returnees and less than a handful that had played on the same team together.
Encounters between Lightning and Steeldogs when the two sides met in the English Premier League were often close run ones. This game proved no different with the lead changing hands on four occasions on Saturday before the Yorkshire side seemed to have wrapped things up with two goals in as many minutes to take a 6-4 lead.
A piece of bravado from Callum Robertson opened the scoring as he went solo to fire in from close range on 9mins 43secs.
Within two minutes Sheffield levelled when Cameron Brownley was given too much to blast in off the right hand post at 11mins 7secs.
Steeldogs found themselves a man down for a third time with Tim Smith called for delaying the game in the 14th minute but that did not stop them breaking away to edge the first period with a goal on 16mins 2secs by Kieron Brown.
Lightning squared things up on 24mins 12secs while they were shorthanded after Sam Russell was called for holding –Rio Grinell-Parke scoring with an upstairs shot.
On 24mins 46secs the hosts went in front for the only time, thanks to an Ari Nähri goal but Steeldogs were back in the game as they equalised through a Jan Danecek marker at 28mins 59secs.
They then edged ahead when James Griffin’s efforts to block Alex Graham only appeared to shield netminder Jordan Lawday’s view of the Sheffield player’s long range blast at 32mins 12secs.
But Lightning were not going to roll over and die and they once again squared things up with a Cowley assisted equaliser from Tanaka just 30 seconds from the end of the middle period.
In the end it was two strikes within two minutes at 50mins 41secs and 52mins 19secs that gave Steeldogs a lead that they were not to relinquish – Brown bagging his second and then Calvert the other to make it 6-4. Lightning did not give in and they narrowed the gap to one with 1mins 7secs remaining as Nähri registered.
At Sheffield on Sunday Lightning – with Brandon Stones in goal against his former club – got off to a fine start Ferguson scored after 2mins 13secs and it didn’t take long before a major altercation which ended up with four Steeldogs and five MK players each handed two minute penalties.
That gave the home side a man advantage from which they scored through Kieron Brown at 7mins 14secs. The home side who went in front thanks to Jan Danecek, on 12mins 23secs. The gap was stretched to two after 14mins 36secs thanks to Ashley Calvert
There was a quick response from Lightning however with Grant McPherson on the mark at 15mins 15secs.
It was McPherson involved during a mid-period bust up also involving Steeldogs’ Graham and Charles Thompson – the MK man receiving a total of 14 mins for roughing.
Despite all that no further scores ensued before the next break and indeed it was not until 49mins 39secs that Tomas Kana struck to make it 3-3.
A series of penalties on MK players – Tanaka (twice) and James Griffin – eventually saw Sheffield register the decisive winning goal after 54mins 16secs with a powerplay effort from Lewis Bell.
Next up for Lightning is a pair of challenge games with last year’s NIHL play off champions, Hull Pirates. The home encounter is on Saturday at 7pm while MK travel to Humberside on Sunday.