Manchester Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand believe his side can carry the free-scoring form that saw them sweep aside Bracknell Bees last Sunday into a “special” playoff finals weekend at the Skydome in Coventry.
Phoenix demolished the Bees 7-2 to overcome a 4-3 aggregate deficit from their quarter-final first leg and set up semi-final clash with Basingstoke Bison on Saturday. The winner will progress to Sunday’s playoff final against either Milton Keynes Lightning or league and cup champions the Guildford Flames.
The Bison proved a tough nut to crack during the regular season, winning five of the six encounters with Phoenix. But Hand’s men can take some comfort from the fact that their sole win came in the most recent meeting on 3 March, when they bulldozed the league-leading Basingstoke defence in a 6-2 blowout.
And despite finishing second in the league above Phoenix, Bison’s progress to their first playoff finals appearance was far from comfortable. Doug Sheppard’s side needed a 2-1 overtime victory against Swindon Wildcats to seal a 5-4 aggregate win last Sunday.
But the form book will go out of the window in what promises to be an enthralling one-off clash on Saturday night. Both sides are capable of going all the way, boasting match winners in attack, strong D-men, relentless competitors on every line and, in Steve Fone and Stevie Lyle, two of the top goaltenders in the league.
Hand said: “Playoff weekend is something special and we all strive to get there. Basingstoke are a good team with a good coach in Doug Sheppard and we will have to be on top form to go through to Sunday.
“We are ready. I thought we played some of our best hockey of the season last weekend and we will carry that forward to Coventry. The atmosphere will be fantastic with the event being sold out.”
Phoenix travel to Coventry having just handed out their end of season awards. Czech hit man Michal Psurny (pictured) was named Forward of the Year and Supporters’ Club Player of the Year after racking up 43 goals and 47 assists for 89 points in 52 games. Psunry’s achievement in leading the team in scoring in his first season in Manchester is all the more remarkable given that he only arrived as an 11th hour replacement for injured Finnish forward Timo Kuuluvainen on the eve of the season.
Elsewhere, the tireless Tom Duggan was named the Fans’ Player of the Year, while Ben Wood took Best All-Round Player – although he also picked up the rather less complimentary Bambi on Ice award.
Captain Luke Boothroyd swept the other major gongs, picking up Defenceman of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and Coach’s Player of the Year.
After 54 hard-fought regular season games and that rollercoaster quarter-final against Bracknell, Phoenix’s skipper will be hoping to cap another eventful campaign by lifting the club’s first playoff trophy on Sunday night.
By Andy Jowett