Manchester Phoenix will be officially crowned English Premier League champions this weekend after beating title rivals the Basingstoke Bison in a dramatic crunch match at the Altrincham Ice Dome.
Phoenix came into the match on the back of a frustrating 2-0 road loss to Swindon Wildcats the night before but knew that victory by a two-goal margin over Doug Sheppard’s Bison would still be enough to bring the championship back North for the first time since 2010-11.
A tense opening period saw Michal Psurny edge Phoenix in front from an incisive James Archer pass, only for the Bison to haul themselves level through Andrew Melachrino. The two teams went into the first interval locked at 1-1.
Basingstoke pushed hard after the break for the go-ahead goal but the home side held on and took the lead themselves when former NHL D-man Robert Schnabel launched a thunderbolt from the blue line.
The Ice Dome erupted again on 34.24 when Archer and Tony Hand combined to give Psurny time and space to pick his spot for 3-1.
However, the Bison were not about to give up their own title dreams without a fight and just 60 seconds later they pulled it back to 3-2 through Joe Rand.
Phoenix dug deep and player-coach Hand, in what he has said is probably his last season on the ice, was right on cue to put home what turned out to the game winning goal on 37.55, with assists from Frankie Bakrlik and Robin Kovar.
The third period was a nervy affair for the home fans as the Bison fought desperately to reduce the deficit. The visitors pulled goalie Dean Skinns for the extra attacker but with just one second left on the clock, Kovar lobbed the puck almost the full length of the ice to make it 5-2 and spark rapturous celebrations among Phoenix’s players and fans.
With the league title now secured, Phoenix will wrap up the regular season with a visit to Peterborough Phantoms on Saturday before the Telford Tigers come to Altrincham on Sunday – and the party will get into full swing as the champions are presented with the EPL trophy.
Hand and his team will then turn their focus to the EPL Playoffs and a chance to complete a famous double.
After the clinching the title, the player-coach said: “Great credit to every man on the team, they have worked so hard all season to get to where we are. Delighted for them and for the fans. They have been behind us every game and they make this a great place to play. Now we will turn our attention to completing the league and defending our playoff title.”
Meanwhile, veteran campaigner Schnabel paid tribute to Phoenix faithful.
“It is a fantastic feeling to win for these fans,” he said.
“They are great and the best I have played for in my career – and that has been a long career.”
Pic Richard Amor Allan