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A freak goal with just ten seconds remaining snuffed out Manchester Phoenix's hopes of reining in league leaders Guildford Flames as the Surrey side strengthened their championship credentials with a 4-2 in Altrincham last night.
Phoenix were unlucky not to take at least a point from their only English Premier League game of the weekend, having more than matched the visitors for most of the contest.
With player-coach Tony Hand back in the line-up after his Team GB duties and first-line forward Joachim Flaten recovered from injury, the hosts looked refreshed and confident, having beaten the Flames 6-1 the last time the two sides met on home ice.
Assistant captain Tom Duggan tested Flames netminder Mark Lee within ten seconds of the puck drop and Hand was unhappy when his set-up pass was trapped under a sliding Guildford defenceman, who knocked the net off its moorings.
The goal came loose again after 1.52 when, with Guildford under massive pressure in their own zone, Phoenix D-man Ondrej Pozivil smashed the puck home. The goal was ruled out with many home fans suspecting the net had been deliberately dislodged.
Their mood was not improved when Guildford snatched the lead against the run of play after 3.55, with former Phoenix forward Curtis Huppe adding insult to injury as he applied the finishing touch.
Undeterred, the home side kept piling on the pressure and it finally told with 10.39 remaining when Hand found Michal Psurny behind the Guildford net. The Czech forward pulled the puck in front and managed to tuck it past Lee at his near post.
The Flames reacted by cranking up the pressure on back-up goalie Jorge El-Hage, who was once again standing in for the injured Steve Fone. The rookie, who endured a difficult time last weekend and was pulled in successive games, stood firm when first Robert Schnabel and then Hand failed to clear the puck.
Phoenix's determination was epitomised by Andy McKinney, who threw himself in front of a vicious shot and left the ice in obvious pain, although he recovered to continue playing.
Manchester started the second period on the power play after Andrew Hemmings was called for hooking and they needed just 24 seconds to make the man advantage pay. A slow, deliberate build-up saw Hand work the space to lob a pass to the back post and captain Luke Boothroyd arrived with precision timing to smash it home.
Phoenix nearly made it 3-1 inside of two minutes when Hand again unlocked the Flames defence and Psurny went one-on-one with Lee. The Czech forward lifted the puck over the sprawling goalie only to see it clip off the post.
The visitors had a great chance to halve the deficit with 13.28 remaining when Phoenix were caught out on a line change and Flames forward Nathan Rempel found himself with just El-Hage to beat – but the goalie again stood up well and deflected Rempel's shot away with his shoulder.
The game was now becoming end-to-end stuff, with Duggan denied by David Savage's diving poke-check before El-Hage was again called into action to deny Hemmings.
But Guildford grabbed the crucial next goal to level the score with 7.09 left in the second period. Rick Plant got behind the Phoenix net and pulled the puck back across the goalie's crease for Milos Melicherik to tuck it home.
Phoenix almost hit back three minutes later when Liam Chong's fine pass picked out Richard Bentham, but he too was denied by the post.
The near miss was punished with 2.40 remaining when Flames captain David Longstaff skated from behind Manchester's goal and beat El-Hage with a low shot through the five-hole to give the Flames a 3-2 lead heading into the final stanza.
Phoenix threw everything at the visitors in the final 20 minutes and should have at least forced overtime, with McKinney, Boothroyd and Bari McKenzie all going agonisingly close to grabbing an equaliser. But as the clock ticked down to the final ten seconds, a cruel bounce crushed their hopes of getting the win.
Guildford defenceman Branislav Kvetan broke up the play in his own zone and skated out over the halfway line, releasing a fierce high drive designed to get the puck deep and run down the clock. However, the puck ricocheted off the glass behind the goal, hit El-Hage in the back and dropped over the line for the cruellest of finishes.
After the final buzzer, Hand said: "We worked hard again and I thought we deserved something from the game. We had plenty of chances but just did not get the rub of the green. Credit though to Guildford. They are a top side and certainly contributed to a good game of hockey."
The result leaves Phoenix in third place in the English Premier League with 55 points from 44 games.
With just ten games to go, the Flames now look hot favourites to secure a second successive EPL title as they moved two points clear of second place Basingstoke Bison, who have played two games more. Guildford are on 66 points after 44 games, with the Bison on 64 from 46.
Phoenix travel to Guildford on Wednesday and Slough Jets on Saturday before their next home game, against Swindon Wildcats, on 23 February. Tickets are available via the Manchester Phoenix website.
Saturday 16 February
Guildford Flames 7-6 Bracknell Bees
Milton Keynes Lightning 1-2 Sheffield Steeldogs
Slough Jets 7-6 Basingstoke Bison
Telford Tigers 2-5 Peterborough Phantoms
Sunday 17 February
Basingstoke Bison 1-3 Milton Keynes Lightning
Bracknell Bees 6-3 Telford Tigers
Manchester Phoenix 2-4 Guildford Flames
Peterborough Phantoms 2-5 Swindon Wildcats
Sheffield Steeldogs 1-2 Slough Jets
By Andy Jowett