One player doesn’t make a team – but he doesn’t half make a difference in instilling a newfound confidence so obviously missing in recent weeks.
Liam Stewart’s long-awaited debut weekend for Milton Keynes Lightning could hardly have gone better with a two-goal man of the match performance inspiring the team to their biggest win of the season – a 7-2 victory over Bracknell Bees at Planet Ice on Saturday.
On Sunday he went on to lead MK to their first four-point weekend in almost exactly two years with two goals in the side’s 3-1 win at Sheffield Steeldogs – again earning the man of the match.
Stewart, whose arrival on these shores was delayed by his contractual obligations in the New Zealand Hockey League, registered a goal in each of the second and third periods and, just as importantly unlocked the hesitancy which had, thus far, cost Lightning games in previous weeks.
Hallden Barnes-Garner put Lightning back on terms following an early Bees strike with a powerplay marker from close range on 16mins 47secs – Robin Kovar having put Bees in front on 4mins 54secs with a shot from distance which eluded stand-in netminder Dean Skinns. From then on though there was little that went right for a Bracknell team that had broken home fans’ hearts with a game-winning goal six seconds from time a few weeks ago.
When Stuart Mogg went for hooking with less than two minutes of the middle period gone Lightning took full advantage as Ari Nähri poked the puck home at 22mins 25secs.
Bees could make no impression on 24th minute powerplay and it was to cost them dearly moments later as Stewart, broke away and unleashed a shot which goalie Adam Goss appeared to have saved but instead the puck seemed to go in off the back of him at 26mins 18secs to make it 3-1.
Youngster Logan Prince registered his debut goal for Lightning on 33mins 42secs, having not had a shift before. With a three-goal advantage going into the third period home fans were dreaming of a long-awaited convincing win. But they would not have been confident knowing that MK had previously lost games from a similar position previously this year.
However, those doubts were dispelled within five minutes of the start of the final session as Stewart completed his hat-trick with an unassisted goal, slotting home on 44mins 2secs.
MK went on to add two more goals in the final eight minutes with Nähri snapping up a rebound for the sixth goal after 52mins 13secs
With less than three minutes defenceman Ross Green scored his first goal for Lightning for five years at 57mins 20secs. Bees’ second goal was nothing more than a consolation as their man of the match, Brendan Baird, made it 7-2 after 58mins 22secs.
On Sunday Lightning completed their four-point weekend in two years with a superb performance at Sheffield Steeldogs on Sunday.
The 3-1 victory came almost exactly two years to the day after Lightning posted a pair of narrow Elite League wins against Coventry Blaze and Manchester Storm. Unfortunately from then on the club’s path was downward – unlike the present team who have been given a huge psychological boost by the arrival of Stewart.
The former Coventry and Guildford Flames player added a pair of goals at Steeldogs before Tomas Kana rounded off the night with an empty-net strike. For the second game in a row, Stewart was man of the match for his team.
Those results have lifted Lightning off the bottom of the National Ice Hockey League to occupy third from the foot of the table.
At Sheffield once again Skinns did a sterling job in goal while Tom Carlon returned after missing the Bracknell game.
Sam Russell drew the first penalty of the game when he went for tripping after just 3mins 3secs. Although Steeldogs couldn’t capitalise on the powerplay they struck first when James Spurr registered on 7mins 17secs.
After Ashley Calvert was caught hooking on 10mins 12secs – it took Stewart just 11 seconds to find the net.
Cale Tanaka supplied Stewart to strike again on 35mins 35secs to give MK the lead for the first time.
As the hosts desperately sought an equaliser they withdrew Zimozdra in favour of the extra skater with just over a minute to go. Unfortunately for them, the move backfired with Kana banging the puck into the empty net to make victory secure for Lightning at 59mins 36secs.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer but on the weekend’s performances spring could be on the way thanks to Stewart’s arrival.