Manchester Phoenix out to extinguish red-hot Flames
Manchester Phoenix face perhaps their biggest game of the season so far on Saturday night when EPL leaders and reigning champions the Guildford Flames come to the Altrincham Ice Dome.
The red-hot Flames will travel north having won six straight and with only one defeat in their last 17 games – a remarkable run that has seen them overhaul Basingstoke Bison at the top of the table.
Paul Dixon's side are the EPL's highest scorers with 143 goals and boast the league's top scorer in Great Britain forward David Longstaff, who has bagged 25 goals and 42 assists for 67 points in 31 appearances. With ex-Phoenix man Curtis Huppe also in the top five with 31 goals and 20 assists, the Flames are a formidable offensive juggernaut.
At the other end, Guildford's defensive corps is full of grit and steel, with veteran Neil Liddiard and import Branislav Kvetan each clocking up 80-plus minutes in the penalty box. Forward Andrew Sharp, an EPL title winner with Phoenix back in 2010-11, also brings plenty of toughness to the ice and has 82 penalty minutes in 32 games.
Between the pipes, Mark Lee is fourth in the EPL's goalie rankings behind Basingstoke's Stevie Lyle and the Milton Keyes pair of Alex Mettam and Stephen Wall.
But while the Flames are a formidable force, this Phoenix team is not easily intimidated and will fancy their chances of giving the league leaders something to worry about.
Tony Hand's side remain in the title mix after picking up six wins in eight games over the Christmas period. Manchester have also put together a five-game winning streak on home ice, including a 10-2 demolition of Telford Tigers and last weekend's 5-2 victory over Milton Keynes Lightning.
Furthermore, the Phoenix have the upper hand on Guildford so far this season, having won back-to-back games against the Flames back in October.
However, this week has seen the departure of forward Derek Campbell, who chipped in some important points during the festive season, and fan favourite Ciaran Long, who has re-signed with Slough Jets.
Manchester still have plenty of firepower, though. Czech hitman Michal Psurny (pictured) has 24 goals, while Norwegian forward Joachim Flaten has 20. Hand is once again playing the maestro in attack and leads the league with 44 assists.
With two good teams in good form set to collide, Saturday's game (face-off 7pm) promises to a hugely entertaining affair – and it could have a big influence on the final destination of the EPL Championship.
Coach Hand said: "These match-ups are the ones you play the game for. Guildford are a top side and we have beaten them twice so far. Continuing that run will be very difficult and we will need to play for the full 60 minutes as we did last weekend against Lightning. The locker room is buzzing at the moment and we will be up and ready for them come Saturday."
Phoenix will wrap up another weekend's action with a trip to bottom club Telford Tigers on Sunday.
While Manchester won comfortably when the two teams met at the Ice Dome on 27 December, Hand will know his team will need to be fully focussed against the EPL strugglers as Telford shocked Phoenix 4-1 on home ice back in November.
Tickets for Saturday's game with Guildford Flames are available via the Manchester Phoenix website.
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Richard Allan