Manchester Phoenix face must-win clash with Guildford Flames
Manchester Phoenix return to action on Sunday for what looks like a must-win clash with Guildford Flames.
Back-to-back away losses to the Flames and Peterborough Phantoms last weekend left Phoenix eight points adrift of English Premier League leaders Basingstoke Bison with a game in hand. With just 11 league games to go, Tony Hand's men need a strong finish to the season to have any hope of capturing the title.
Despite last Saturday's 7-4 loss in Guildford, Phoenix have the upper hand on their Surrey rivals, having beaten them three times in the EPL. The last time the two sides met at the Altrincham Ice Dome, Manchester stormed to a 6-1 victory in arguably their best performance of the season – and Hand will be hoping for more of the same this weekend.
However, the Phoenix player-coach is still facing a number of injury headaches. Starting goalie Steve Fone has missed the last eight games – a run that has seen Manchester pick up just three wins – after picking up a strain against the Bison. Although understudy Jorge El-Hage cannot be blamed for those defeats, the relatively inexperienced rookie is on a steep learning curve had a particularly rough time last weekend as both the Flames and Phantoms chased him from the cage.
Meanwhile, first line forward Joachim Flaten, who has contributed 45 points in 39 games, has been missing since the win over Bracknell Bees on 27 January after suffering a nasty cut in a collision with the boards.
With his squad battered and bruised, the return of Hand from GB coaching duties in Latvia is particularly welcome. The veteran playmaker has over 50 assists this season and will give a crucial boost to the Phoenix attack against Guildford.
Indeed, Sunday's game promises no shortage of goals. Phoenix and the Flames are by some distance the league's top scoring teams, with 168 and 179 goals respectively.
Guildford have their own evergreen British forward in David Longstaff, who has notched 32 goals and 54 assists this season for an impressive 86 points. Ex-Phoenix man Curtis Huppe has chipped in another 68 points, while Slovakian forward Jozef Kohut has 44 points in just 37 games.
The Flames also pack plenty of steel, with 6'1'', 210lbs defenceman Branislav Kvetan clocking up 106 penalty minutes. Former Phoenix enforcer Andrew Sharp and English D-man Neil Liddiard are not far behind, with 94 and 90 minutes each in the box of shame.
Looking ahead to what promises to be an entertaining tilt, Hand said: "We have worked hard and everybody is determined to get a result this weekend.
"We have an extra day's rest with no game on Saturday and we are all looking forward to another encounter with the Flames."
Tickets for Sunday's game are available via the Manchester Phoenix website.
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Räi Pekkänen