Manchester Phoenix saved the best for last at the EPL playoffs weekend, producing arguably their best hockey of the season to sweep aside newly crowned league and cup champions the Guildford Flames to claim the trophy.
Tony Hand’s men had booked their place in Sunday’s final with a nerve-jangling 5-4 shootout victory over Basingstoke Bison on Saturday night. Bison had been Manchester’s bogey team during the regular season, taking five wins from six games and finishing above Phoenix in the league.
They looked to be in control again in the early stages but Manchester snatched the lead against the run of play when Hand and top scorer Michal Psurny set up James Neil to light the lamp on 8.27.
Bison regrouped and equalised three minutes later through Greg Owen. Basingstoke player-coach Doug Sheppard then put his side in front late in the first period and Phoenix were facing an uphill battle heading into the second.
But Hand successfully adjusted his gameplan to counter Bison’s quick breakouts and then provided the killer pass for Psurny to level things up at 2-2.
Phoenix got their noses in front just 31 seconds before the buzzer when Joachim Flaten used his head, literally, to force the puck beyond Stevie Lyle.
Bison battled back again early in the third period when Greg Chambers fired a bouncing puck past Phoenix netminder Steve Fone – although the delayed call from the goal judge saw Basingstoke forward Jasolav Cesky hit with a ten-minute misconduct call.
Phoenix wasted no time pushing home the advantage and, just over a minute after the Bison had pulled level, Hand made it 4-3 when he tipped home Robert Schnabel’s thunderous cross-ice pass.
However, former Manchester man Joe Miller popped up to tie it at 4-4 on 45.11 and the game went to overtime. With no goals in the sudden death period, the two sides faced the dreaded shootout.
Psurny and Cesky both converted in round one but things looked dicey for Phoenix when captain Luke Boothroyd missed and Bison’s Joe Rand scored. Bari McKenzie kept Manchester’s hopes alive before Miller missed the shot that could have put Bison through. James Archer kept his nerve to score for Phoenix before Sheppard became the fall guy as he missed and the Phoenix faithful erupted.
Sunday’s final saw Phoenix facing intimidating opposition in the Flames, who had swept all before them in the regular season to complete a second successive league and cup double. However, Hand’s men produced an inspired performance to extinguish Guildford’s treble dream.
Phoenix took the game to the Flames from the first faceoff and went in front midway through the opening period when Psurny and Hand found Boothroyd, who made up for that missed penalty shot by firing past Guildford goalie Mark Lee.
Manchester’s momentum carried over to the second period and Bari McKenzie released James Archer to double Phoenix’s lead on 6.37. When Psurny notched a short-handed goal with four minutes to go, the Flames were looking well and truly doused.
Guildford threatened a rally when they cut the deficit to two just 40 seconds into the third period through Nathan Rempel but Phoenix weathered their subsequent onslaught and snuffed out the Flames’ lingering hopes of a comeback when Hand’s superb shot beat Lee at the near post.
Phoenix had one hand firmly on the trophy when Psurny made it 5-1 with a little over ten minutes to go. The Flames managed a consolation but could not find a way past Manchester’s Man of the Match Steve Fone, who was outstanding after missing a large chunk of the season through injury.
Delirium set in at the final buzzer as Phoenix claimed the club’s first ever Playoff Final victory.
After the match, Hand said: “I am really proud of the whole team tonight. They executed our game plan to perfection and this must go down as one of our best ever performances. Guildford are a great organisation and team but tonight was to be our night.
“I’m really pleased for the fans. They have been superb all season both home and away and the turnout this weekend is amazing. We are so glad, as a team, to win the trophy for them.”
By Andy Jowett