Joy of six lifts Manchester Phoenix past Jets and Wildcats
Manchester Phoenix produced two six-goal blitzes to defeat Slough Jets and Swindon Wildcats for the team's first back-to-back wins since mid-January at the weekend.
After slipping 13 points behind the table-topping Guildford Flames, Tony Hand's charges were determined to demonstrate that the season is far from over when they made the long trip to Berkshire.
The veteran player-coach had to sit out the Jets clash with a knock, while goaltender Jorge El-Hage, who in Hand's words has been through a "baptism of fire" as understudy for the injured Steve Fone, was rested as Andrew Jaszcyzk made his first start of the season.
A long, hard season has also taken its toll on Slough, who lined up without the injured trio of player-coach Slava Koulikov, tough defenceman Adam Greener and forward Alex Barker.
Phoenix made the brighter start and the third line stepped up the offense to put the visitors in front after 6.15 when Richard Bentham supplied the pass for Liam Chong to crack home a slap shot. Manchester's defence then limited the Jets' under-strength attack to just five shots on Jaszcyzk in the first period.
Bentham doubled Phoenix's lead 6.20 into the second period when former Manchester defenceman Pavel Gomeniuk turned over the puck in his own zone and the Blackburn-born forward ruthlessly punished the mistake.
There were more injury worries for Phoenix when defenceman Ben Wood was caught with a slash and Chong had to be helped off the ice after a knee-on-knee clash.
The visitors then found themselves two men down because of penalties after Luke Boothroyd and Joachim Flaten were sent to the box. The Jets cranked up the pressure five-on-three and the EPL's top-scoring defenceman, Mindy Kieras, got them back in the game with a powerful shot through traffic.
Frantisek Bakrlik was close to equalising with less than five minutes to play, with Slough claiming the puck had crossed the line and bounced back out. Unfortunately for the Jets, the officials and goal judge did not see it.
The hosts would not get another chance to level it as two goals in the first four minutes of the final stanza from James Archer and Tom Duggan pulled Phoenix clear.
Darius Pliskauskas made it 4-2 after 5.39 but despite the home side putting Jaszczyk's goal under intense pressure, it was Phoenix who lit the lamp next as Duggan outsmarted Jets' goalie Gregg Rockman in a one-on-one.
Archer wrapped things up with his second of the night on the power play.
After the game, Hand hailed a "fantastic" road performance.
"It was great to see the British lads get the goals and Andrew had a good game in goal," he said.
Jaszczyk's impressive performance in Slough persuaded Hand to give him a full home debut against the Wildcats the following night. Phoenix also had Hand back in the line-up, while Wood and Chong showed no lingering effects from their battle damage.
And it was the player-coach who gave the home side the lead with 4.40 to go in the first period. Hand picked up a pass from Flaten and fired a tracer bullet of a shot beyond Swindon goalie Thomas Murdy.
The hosts could have been 2-0 up 20 seconds later when Duggan set up Archer but his close range shot just cleared the crossbar.
The second period was as entertaining for the fans as it must have been agonising for the coaches, as both sides were repeatedly able to open up the other's defence with a single pass.
There was another anxious moment for Phoenix when Tom Duggan stayed down after he was slammed into the boards. Thankfully, the assistant captain was able to continue as Wildcats player-coach Ryan Aldridge sat out two minutes for boarding.
Swindon killed that penalty but soon found themselves on the wrong end of a five-on-three after Matias Perkkio and Jan Melichar were sent to the box for slashing. The Wildcats managed to fight off the two-man advantage but could not hold on with four skaters as Phoenix's top scorer, Michal Psurny, forced the puck under Murdy from Hand's pass. Luke Boothroyd claimed the second assist.
The visitors hit back just 20 seconds later when Paul Swindlehurst, who had skated in front of the Phoenix crease to retrieve a lost glove, suddenly found himself all alone with the puck, so he quickly rounded Jaszczyk to score.
But the Wildcats' hopes of building any momentum were snuffed out almost immediately by a bizarre goal. James Neil's speculative effort pinballed off Swindon's goalie and D-man before sliding under a helpless Murdy to make it 3-1.
Swindon were then denied by the post after Perkkio flew down the wing and fired a bullet past Jaszczyk, only for the puck to ring off the pipes and ricochet back across the goalmouth before Phoenix scrambled it clear.
The teams went four-on-four when Robert Schnabel was called for interference but Swindon lost the advantage a minute later when Perkkio was penalised for goaltender interference. With just one second left on Schnabel's penalty, Neil was called for hooking after he pulled back Jonas Hoog as the Swedish forward closed in on goal.
The flurry of penalties fuelled another burst of end-to-end hockey, with Perkkio emerging from the box to fire into the side netting before Chong was denied by Murdy, who was then flipped over by his own sliding defenceman.
Swindon pulled it back to 3-2 on the power play after Ben Wood was called for interference. Aaron Nell managed to force the puck over the line as players piled up in the crease, with assists for Aldridge and Perkkio.
It was all square five minutes into the third period when Perkkio's shot from out wide sneaked in, with another assist for Aldridge and one for giant D-man Tomas Fojtik.
Swindon could have gone in front 30 seconds later when a rebound span free in front of an open goal but a sprawling Jaszczyk sprang across his crease to make a superb stick save at full stretch.
It proved a hugely important save, as Norwegian forward Joachim Flaten then produced a six-minute blizzard of points to blow away the tiring Wildcats.
The 26-year-old, who has just returned from a lengthy injury, pulled Phoenix in front with a fierce shot that went straight through a Swindon D-man and a stunned Murdy with 7.42 to play. Assists went to Hand and Pozivil.
He added a second goal just over three minutes later with a fierce shot that beat Murdy through the five-hole, assisted by Psurny and Hand.
Swindon threw caution to the wind by pulling Murdy for an extra attacker with 3.05 still on the clock. However, despite keeping Phoenix pinned in their own defensive zone for a long spell, the Wildcats just could not find an opening. Flaten finally broke up the play and thundered down the wing before squaring a pass for Psurny to clinch a 6-3 win.
"Great four point weekend for us," Hand said.
"Swindon are a tricky side and are always capable of scoring goals as we saw tonight. However, we stayed focussed and got away from them in the latter stages and I thought we deserved the win."
The back-to-back victories set up Phoenix nicely for two big home games next weekend. On Saturday, Hand's men will attempt to overturn a two-goal deficit against Guildford Flames to reach the EPL Cup final before second place Basingstoke Bison visit the Ice Dome on Sunday evening. Jaszczyk's performances this weekend will give the Phoenix player-coach plenty to chew over as he plans for what promise to be two intriguing and exciting clashes.
Tickets for both games are available via the Manchester Phoenix website.
Thursday 21 February
Swindon Wildcats 1-2 Milton Keynes Lightning
Saturday 23 February
Basingstoke Bison 0-3 Sheffield Steeldogs
Milton Keynes Lightning 2-3 Guildford Flames
Peterborough Phantoms 2-1 Bracknell Bees
Slough Jets 2-6 Manchester Phoenix
Swindon Wildcats 5-4 Telford Tigers
Sunday 24 February
Bracknell Bees 5-6 Peterborough Phantoms
Guildford Flames 4-3 Slough Jets
Manchester Phoenix 6-3 Swindon Wildcats
Telford Tigers 2-3 Milton Keynes Lightning
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Yolanda Amor