Manchester Phoenix out to steady ship against Bees and Lightning
Manchester Phoenix face another big weekend of English Premier League ice hockey as they look to get their title challenge back on track against Bracknell Bees and Milton Keynes Lightning.
Those wishing to avoid Tony Hand's steely glare would avoid using the word "slump" but after four straight defeats saw his team slip to fourth in the EPL table, the player-coach himself clearly felt it was time to make a change, releasing forward Scott McKenzie and bringing ex-Edinburgh Capitals and Cardiff Devils man Bari McKenzie.
Scott will return to his former club Telford Tigers after this weekend's matches and the popular forward will be looking to sign off with a couple of victories.
Saturday's game will be Manchester's first visit of the season to the Hive. The two teams met at the Altrincham Ice Dome back on 28 October, with Phoenix running riot in a 7-1 win. Hand will be hoping for more of the same in Berkshire.
However, the Bees are capable of stinging the top sides and are just five points behind Phoenix in the standings. Veteran forwards Martin Masa and Lukas Smital have amassed 63 points between them, with linemate Shaun Thompson chipping in another 30, so there is plenty of attacking threat.
Saturday's game doubles up as Manchester's final EPL Cup qualifying match. Phoenix have already booked their place in the semi-finals and will be waiting on other results to find out who their opponents will be in the two-legged tie.
Sunday promises to be another big game in Altrincham. Milton Keynes have taken advantage of Manchester's recent wobble to move ahead of Phoenix into third, behind a resurgent Guildford Flames and league leaders the Basingstoke Bison.
It was a tight affair the last time the two sides met at the Ice Dome, with Andy McKinney grabbing a double in a 2-2 regulation time draw before Michal Psurny snatched the extra point in a shootout.
Phoenix have also met the Lightning twice in Milton Keynes, suffering an 8-2 mauling back in September before a big 4-1 win on 17 November.
Senior players including netminder Steve Fone and defenceman Robert Schnabel are set to return to the line-up after sitting out last night's 3-2 win over Great Britain U20s. Tom Duggan could also ice again after he came through the exhibition game following a concussion.
Look ahead to this weekend's action, Hand said: "We have had a few disappointing results of late but I cannot fault the team for their efforts. We are playing well but not getting the rub of the green at the moment. We will just plug on, work hard in practice and the results will come. We still have 30-plus games to play so there is still plenty to play for. We are struggling with a couple of injuries and once they work their way out of the system we will be okay."
Captain Luke Boothroyd added: "There are no easy games in this league and Bracknell is always a tough place to pick up points.
"Then on Sunday, Milton Keynes will provide tough opposition but we have been playing well against them and we are looking to keep the points at the Dome."
Tickets for Sunday's game are available from the Manchester Phoenix website.
By Andy Jowett