Manchester Phoenix will face Bracknell Bees in the English Premier League playoffs after a rollercoaster weekend summed up a topsy-turvy season for Tony Hand’s men.
At times, Phoenix looked unstoppable against Sheffield Steeldogs and Telford Tigers, but they also suffered with injuries and were guilty of cruising as they twice saw big leads blown away.
The weekend’s action began in a snowy Sheffield on Friday night with Phoenix knowing that a win would secure third place in the league table and a playoff quarter-final with the team finishing sixth.
Phoenix had Michal Psurny and Ondrej Pozivil back in their line-up following injury and illness respectively but Hand decided to stay behind the bench and rested James Archer and Andy McKinney. Youngsters Lee Pollitt, Cade King and Jared Dickinson of Phoenix’s English National League affiliate the Trafford Metros stepped up to the roster to take their place.
Tom Duggan put the visitors in control with two goals a little over 100 seconds apart towards the end of the first period.
Steeldogs fans must have been fearing a rout when he completed his hat-trick on the power play just 1.15 into the second period and Bari McKenzie added a fourth in short order.
But, with Pozivil unable to continue in the third period, the hosts kicked off a crazy final stanza with a goal from Greg Wood after just 48 seconds to cut the deficit to three.
Joachim Flaten restored the four-goal cushion for Phoenix on 3.30 but Andrew Hirst pegged it back again in a four-on-four play. Duggan scored his fourth of the night to make it 6-2 and seemingly seal the points only for Hirst to claw another one back.
Most observers would have bet the mortgage on the match being done and dusted when Sheffield’s Ben Morgan was thrown out of the game with less than seven minutes to play – especially as the Steeldogs would be a man down for five of those minutes.
But incredibly the Yorkshire side produced three short-handed goals from Lubomir Korhon and Bebris (2) to tie it up at 6-6, leaving Hand justifiably apoplectic on the Phoenix bench.
However, just as it seemed the Steeldogs would snatch a memorable overtime victory from the jaws of defeat, Bebris was sent to the box for high sticking and Duggan popped up to bag his fifth goal of the night to seal the sudden death win.
Phoenix returned to Altrincham to take on the bottom place Tigers on Sunday and although there was little to play for in terms of league positions, both teams made it clear from the off that this would be no end-of-season scrimmage.
Before the game, the Phoenix faithful gave a rousing reception to goaltender Steve Fone, who started for the first time since 19 January after recovering from a groin injury. Hand and McKinney returned to the line-up and Lee Pollitt, Cade King and Jared Dickinson were dressed again, although Pozivil was scratched after withdrawing from the previous night’s game. Archer was also rested.
The first period went by at a furious pace, with the two sides trading some monster hits.
Michal Psurny gave Phoenix the lead on 4.01 with assists from Hand and Flaten. The home side could have doubled their lead shortly after when Duggan weaved behind the Telford goal and set up Flaten for a big slap shot – but Tigers goalie Declan Ryan turned it away with his chest.
Fone had made a couple of sharp saves on his return but showed a bit of rustiness when he misjudged a puck going deep and Thomas Soar’s shot deflected in off the scrambling goalie for the equaliser.
Phoenix had nevertheless been on top and they made their dominance pay in the second period with a three-goal blitz that, once again, looked certain to wrap up a win.
Jared Dickinson got his first Phoenix goal midway through the period when he arrived with perfect timing to finish off some zig-zag passing from Richard Bentham and Andy McKinney (pictured).
Telford thought they had equalised again a minute later but the puck ricocheted off the crossbar, down to the ice and away without crossing the goal line.
Phoenix pulled further ahead when Psurny sealed his brace after collecting Hand’s pass and tucking the puck under Ryan from close range. Liam Chong made it 4-1 just 60 seconds later and it looked like the third period would be spent on cruise control for the home side.
However, hockey is a brilliantly – and maddeningly – unpredictable sport and a defensive meltdown saw the Tigers claw their way back to 4-4 inside the first two minutes of the final stanza.
Soar tucked away a shot with 18.52 on the clock to make it 4-2 and straight from the restart, Phoenix captain Luke Boothroyd dropped an uncharacteristic clanger by turning over the puck to James Preece, who rattled a shot in off both posts. Telford’s fantastic travelling support were going crazy less than 30 seconds later when a pile-up in the Phoenix crease ended with Tomas Karpov chipping the puck through the bodies to equalise.
The home – and probably away – fans couldn’t believe what they were seeing but there was more drama to come. Phoenix had killed off a five-on-three but, with just seconds remaining on the second penalty, Danny Rose chased down a loose puck and tipped it beyond the advancing Fone to make it 5-4.
Ex-Phoenix forward Scott McKenzie was then awarded a penalty shot but could not complete the Hollywood ending as Fone gained a measure of redemption by smothering his effort.
The Manchester goalie headed to the bench in the dying seconds but Phoenix could not find a breakthrough with the extra attacker and their final home game of the season ended on a deflating, even surreal, note.
It was clearly tough for the coach and some of his players to stay on the ice after swallowing such a bitter pill but stay they did to thank the fans for their support, with MD Neil Morris acting as a calming influence after the heat of battle.
After the match, Hand said: “I was disappointed we let this game slip from our grasp. We should have closed out the game. All credit to Telford who took their chances in the third period.”
Results elsewhere saw Bracknell Bees snatch sixth place at the death from Swindon Wildcats, and Hand is now focused on booking a place at the Playoff Finals weekend in Coventry.
“We will work hard next week and be ready for our quarter-final against Bracknell at the weekend,” the player-coach said.
Phoenix will travel to the Hive on Saturday 30 March before the return leg the following night in Altrincham. Tickets for the home game are available via the Phoenix website.