Killer on the road: Manchester Phoenix suffer back-to-back losses against Flames and Phantoms
A depleted Manchester Phoenix suffered a killer weekend on the road, losing 7-4 to Guildford Flames in a battling display on Saturday before Peterborough Phantoms inflicted a 9-4 loss on Sunday.
The team went into the back-to-back away games without talismanic head coach Tony Hand, who was with the Great Britain squad in Latvia for their Winter Olympics qualifiers, first line forward Joachim Flaten and starting goalie Steve Fone, giving the team a monumental challenge against the second place Flames before the puck had even dropped.
Guildford's veteran forward David Longstaff put the Flames ahead after 3.22 but Phoenix replied when Ondrej Pozivil released Bari McKenzie on a breakaway at the end of the first period.
Manchester battled hard in the second stanza but fell behind at the midway point when Branislav Kvetan struck on the power play. The Flames then took control of the game with two goals in less than a minute from Milos Melicherik and Longstaff.
Pozivil cut the deficit to two in the third period, only for former Manchester favourite Curtis Huppe to make it 5-2 30 seconds later. That prompted Phoenix's stand-in coach Robert Schnabel to swap goaltender Jorge El-Hage for Andrew Jaszczyk.
A Phoenix rally saw James Archer and Michal Psurny make it a one goal game with a little under five minutes to go. But for all their endeavour, the visitors were undone with just a 90 seconds left on the clock when Jozef Kohut struck to make it 6-4. The Slovak forward added an empty netter at the death to seal the 7-4 win.
Phoenix captain Luke Boothroyd said: "I thought we worked hard all night and certainly matched Flames for long periods. We looked like getting something from the game in the third period but their sixth killed that off."
After the defeat in Guildford – and a journey back to Manchester – the prospect of a visit to Peterborough could not have been very inviting for Phoenix. The Phantoms can be a tricky proposition at the best of times and the four previous meetings with them in the EPL have all been tight affairs, with Peterborough taking two shootout victories.
The margin would not be as close this time, although Phoenix headed into the first interval with a 3-2 lead.
Tom Norton put the Phantoms on the board after 7.29 but James Archer levelled a little over two minutes later after a goalmouth scramble. Liam Chong then picked up his first ever Phoenix goal when Peterborough goaltender Damien King found his shot too hot to handle and the puck looped over him into the net. Peterborough tied it at 2-2 when Tom Carlon set up captain Jeff Glowa to beat El-Hage but a howitzer of a slap shot from Robert Schnabel gave Manchester a one-goal lead at the break.
However, the second period saw Peterborough pile on the pressure as the road-weary Phoenix faded. James Ferrara lit the lamp on a power plan one minute into the period and the Phantoms pulled ahead through Joe Graham's lob four minutes in.
Manchester's Richard Betham was foiled by King in a one-on-one – and Peterborough immediately broke up the other end, with Ondrej Lauko coming out on top in a showdown with El-Hage.
The third period only got worse for Phoenix. Lauko added a second through the five-hole before Glowa ended El-Hage's night with a shot that crept over the line. The unlucky goaltender found himself chased from the cage for a second straight night, with Jaszczyk taking over between the pipes.
Phoenix were increasingly frustrated with some of the referee's calls and Schnabel was hit with a ten-minute misconduct penalty as the visitors' evening went from bad to worse.
But Liam Chong and Andy McKinney ensured the Phantoms would not have it all their own way. First, Chong bested Phantoms forward Will Weldon in a scrap before adding an assist to complete a Gordie Howe hat-trick as McKinney beat King from close range with just under six minutes remaining.
However, Peterborough managed two more through Carlon and Maris Ziedins to have the last laugh.
The defeats leave Phoenix on 55 points from 43 games – eight points behind league leaders Basingstoke Bison, who have played one more game. With just 11 to play for Phoenix, winning the title now looks a tall order, particularly with the injuries the squad is carrying. But with Tony Hand back in the line-up, two games against Guildford and one against the Bison to come, as well as four games against the EPL's bottom two sides, Sheffield Steelers and Telford Tigers, Manchester will be targeting a big finish to the season to keep themselves in contention.
Phoenix are at home next for what looks like a must-win clash with the Flames on Sunday 17 February. Tickets are available via the Manchester Phoenix website.
Saturday 9 February
Basingstoke Bison 3-0 Telford Tigers
Guildford Flames 7-4 Manchester Phoenix
Milton Keynes Lightning 8-2 Bracknell Bees
Swindon Wildcats 6-2 Peterborough Phantoms
Sunday 10 February
Bracknell Bees 2-4 Milton Keynes Lightning
Peterborough Phantoms 9-4 Manchester Phoenix
Sheffield Steeldogs 5-4 Basingstoke Bison
Slough Jets 2-5 Guildford Flames
By Andy Jowett