Manchester Phoenix six-shooters close gap in EPL title race
Manchester Phoenix produced back-to-back 6-1 wins against the EPL's top and bottom clubs to turn up the heat in the title race.
In arguably their biggest game of the season so far, Tony Hand's men entertained reigning champions Guildford Flames at the Altrincham Ice Dome on Saturday.
The Flames made for formidable opponents, boasting the hottest attack in the league with 143 goals in 33 games, the EPL's leading scorer in GB forward David Longstaff and a run of form that had seen them lose just once in 17 matches.
But player-coach Hand had spoken beforehand of relishing the big match-ups and his team produced an inspired performance in every department.
The game started at a frantic pace, with the two sides trading shots within 15 seconds of the puck drop.
Guildford tried to impose themselves on the home side with a physical game, with former Flame Tom Duggan, one of the smallest players on the ice at 5'8'', getting particularly a rough ride. However, Phoenix's assistant captain, like the rest of his team, was determined not to take a step back and gave as good as he got with a hit on 6'1'', 15-stone Flames defenceman Branislav Kvetan.
Phoenix grabbed the lead after 14.54 when another tenacious competitor, Andy McKinney, fired a bullet of a shot past Flames goalie Mark Lee. Assists went to ex-NHLer Robert Schnabel in his first game back from injury and Ondrej Pozivil.
The Flames had a chance to pull level with a little under two minutes to go when Pozivil was caught on the puck and former Phoenix man Curtis Huppe tried to wrap a shot around from the back of the net but Manchester goalie Steve Fone turned the puck away.
Michael Psurny could have made it 2-0 moments later when the Flames were caught on a line change, but the normally clinical forward could not make a clean connection on his shot and Lee smothered the puck.
Psurny would not be denied, though, and less than three minutes into the second period he stunned Lee with a shot that zipped past the goalie at the near post.
Phoenix made it 3-0 on the power play with 9.14 left on the clock after Guildford defenceman Jez Lundin was called for slashing. Hand's pass found captain Luke Boothroyd at the back post and he smashed the puck home.
The Flames called a timeout but the break did nothing to disrupt Manchester's momentum and it was 4-0 with 6.14 left in the second. A fine team move involving Psurny and the battling James Archer found Pozivil with time and space and the D-man beat Lee before celebrating with his own Jagr salute. Guildford responded by pulling the shell-shocked Lee for backup goalie James Hadfield.
David Longstaff, who had been kept quiet all night, finally got a sight of goal but Fone pulled off an outstanding save to send the puck over the bar. The Phoenix goalie then denied Huppe amid a growing sense that this was just not going to be Guildford's night.
By contrast, Michal Psurny was having a night to remember. He opened the third period with his second goal of the evening when he tipped home a pass from line-mate Joachim Flaten.
Longstaff's frustration boiled over after 1.15 and he was called for high sticking. The Phoenix power play unit punished Guildford once more when Flaten scored, assisted by Hand and Psurny.
The Flames got a consolation goal when Ricky Skene's shot from the blue line took a couple of deflections from home players' sticks and beat Fone but Phoenix saw out the game to claim an outstanding win.
A number of players, including James Neil, Archer, Boothroyd and Flaten, had strong claims to be the home side's Man of the Match, but the accolade went to Psurny, who racked up two goals and three assists with a superb display.
On paper, Sunday's visit to Telford Tigers appeared to offer an easy two points for Phoenix. But having lost 4-1 on their last visit, Manchester were well aware of the potential for an upset that could undo the previous night's hard work.
Hand's men produced a focussed display to secure another solid victory, with Flaten opening the scoring on the power play just over 14 minutes into the first period. James Archer doubled the lead less than a minute later, assisted by Tom Duggan and Bari McKenzie.
The second stanza saw the visitors pick up a flurry of penalties but the Tigers could not make the man advantage pay. The home side did, however, pull one back halfway through the period through ex-Phoenix man Scott McKenzie.
Manchester restored their two-goal cushion when Tigers goalie Baz Hollyhead stopped Tony Hand's shot with his leg pad but could not keep the puck on the right side of the goal line.
Psurny then continued his fine weekend with a short-handed goal assisted by Duggan to make it 4-1.
Phoenix exercised a degree of control in the final 20 minutes, with Duggan and Psurny adding polish to the score line. Backup goalie Jorge El-Hage got some ice time as Manchester wrapped up a valuable four-point weekend.
After the game, Hand said: "Telford are always a tricky team to play against in their own barn and we had to concentrate for the whole game to get the win. I am very pleased with the weekend's results, which keep us right up there challenging for the title."
Back-to-back wins for Phoenix leave them just two points behind the Flames, who returned to the top of the table with a victory over second place Basingstoke Bison on Sunday.
The battle for the championship continues next weekend when Manchester travel to the Bison before Peterborough Phantoms come to the Ice Dome on Sunday.
Saturday 12 January
Basingstoke Bison 4-1 Slough Jets
Manchester Phoenix 6-1 Guildford Flames
Milton Keynes Lightning 4-2 Telford Tigers
Sheffield Steeldogs 3-2 Peterborough Phantoms
Swindon Wildcats 2-6 Bracknell Bees
Sunday 13 January
Bracknell Bees 5-4 Swindon Wildcats
Guildford Flames 5-2 Basingstoke Bison
Peterborough Phantoms 6-3 Sheffield Steeldogs
Slough Jets 3-1 Milton Keynes Lightning
Telford Tigers 1-6 Manchester Phoenix
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Räi Pekkänen