Derek Campbell returned to Manchester with a bang last night as he racked up two goals, an assist and a fight to help Phoenix win a derby thriller against Sheffield Steeldogs.

The arrival of the Canadian forward for his second spell with Phoenix less than 72 hours after his release by Sheffield set the stage for another feisty clash between these fierce rivals.

And with panto season in full swing, Steeldogs player-coach Andre Payette was relishing his role as villain – he even has the beard for it. During the warm-up, he was chirping away at Manchester’s Robert Schnabel, who was sitting the game out through injury, and even skated into the home side’s half before face-off to flick his stick at passing players.

Such antics are part of a long and occasionally inglorious tradition in ice hockey, but they seemed to have little effect on the Phoenix players, with James Archer, Tom Duggan, Richard Bentham, Ben Wood and Andy McKinney seemingly thriving on the challenge.

They also didn’t stop Manchester taking the lead with a short-handed goal from – who else? – Derek Campbell.

The Ontario native nicked the puck on the penalty kill, exchanged passes with Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand and shovelled the puck into the net for a perfectly scripted debut goal.

Joachim Flaten doubled Manchester’s lead with 8.53 to go in the first period with a close-range shot that was just too powerful for Steeldogs netminder James Flavell.

Sheffield were given an opportunity to get back into the game on the power play on 15.10 when McKinney was called for tripping. However, the visitors were kept at bay by Steve Fone, who looked back to his best after some niggling injuries. Manchester’s goalie lost his stick making a save down low but grabbed it again and was back to his feet in time to flick a goal-bound shot up and away with his glove.

Phoenix made it 3-0 with 2.41 to go – and Campbell was involved again. He skimmed a perfect pass across the goalie’s crease and McKinney emerged from the penalty box with impeccable timing to tip the puck home.

But just as Sheffield’s heads were starting to drop, Craig Elliot turned on the afterburners, left Manchester’s defence in his wake and chipped a shot past Fone to give the visitors hope.

The Steeldogs silenced the Ice Dome inside the first two minutes of the second period. Phoenix could not clear their lines – not helped by Campbell having to shove a inconveniently placed linesman out of the way – and Ben Morgan beat Fone at the second attempt with a backhand shot to make it 3-2.

Midway through the period came the moment everyone had been anticipating. Payette cross-checked Archer after the whistle and while the Yorkshireman laughed it off, Campbell flew in to protect his new team-mate. The scrap was more Come Dancing than Fight Club, but it would nevertheless prove significant. Payette received a double minor penalty for fighting, while Campbell received four minutes plus an additional two for instigation.

The game was becoming increasingly tetchy and McKinney was left on the ice after an off-the-puck incident involving Steve Dunscombe. The Phoenix forward exacted a measure of revenge shortly after by smashing the Sheffield defender into the boards.

Manchester’s goal was living a charmed life, with the puck spinning up and hitting Fone on the mask before another shot slipped out of his glove – but Richard Bentham, who had an outstanding game standing in for Schnabel on defence, cleared the puck with a nifty right hook.

There were no further goals in the second period but there was still time for some more Payette theatrics. The Sheffield coach’s glove ended up in the home side’s penalty box after his fight with Campbell and his attempts to retrieve it cost his team an icing infringement penalty, a call that left him so hot under the collar that he was in danger of melting a hole in the ice.

Payette’s mood had not improved much in the final period and he skated after Campbell between plays, getting in his former team-mate’s ear. But the fight appeared to have lifted a weight off Campbell’s shoulders, as though he had got the expectation of a scrap out of his system. Although he already had a goal and an assist before the altercation with Payette, his body language now seemed more positive and he was battling for the puck over every inch of ice.

Yet for all Campbell’s efforts, Sheffield hauled themselves level with 14.37 left in the game. There were calls for offside from the home crowd but the referee was unmoved and Pavel Gomeniuk beat Fone with a crisp shot.

Phoenix’s three-goal lead had evaporated and Flavell had seemingly found another gear, pulling off some exceptional saves to deny Michal Psurny and Ondrej Pozivil, who could not believe what he was seeing from the opposition goalie.

Manchester started to look a little ragged and the home support were shifting nervously in their seats as the Steeldogs fought tooth-and-nail all over the ice.

Phoenix needed a big player to step up – and, not for the first time this season, Psurny answered the call. Manchester’s top goalscorer nearly took the roof off the Ice Dome when he collected Hand’s pass and beat Flavell to make it 4-3.

Phoenix added some gloss to the scoreline with less than a minute left when Campbell wrapped up a dream debut with his second goal of the night from Bentham’s pass.

A Gordie Howe hat-trick with a goal to spare earned Campbell the home side’s Man of the Match award – and, more importantly, a big two points for Phoenix. He may only be on short-term deal but a few more performances like this and Phoenix fans – some of whom had been unsure about his arrival – will be clamouring for an extended stay.

The final score suggests a degree of comfort for Phoenix – but few Manchester fans would deny they were more than a little nervous when the Steeldogs fought back to 3-3.

The derby defeat means Sheffield are in a real slump after seven losses on the bounce, but if Payette’s troops continue to battle and compete as they did in the second and third periods, they will soon be back in the win column.

Over in the Phoenix camp, Hand will no doubt be keeping everyone’s feet on the ground – starting with the inquest into where that 3-0 lead went – but his team faced a big test at 3-3 and they responded with the kind of fighting spirit and skill that makes title contenders. Those hard-fought two-points could prove invaluable come the end of the season.

By Andy Jowett

Pic: Rai Pekkanen