Manchester Phoenix saw their double dreams denied in a dramatic Playoffs Weekend in Coventry.
Fresh from picking up the league championship and getting past Bracknell Bees in a two-legged quarter-final, Tony Hand’s men arrived at the Skydome looking to defend the playoff crown they won last year.
However, Saturday’s semi-final was anything but a formality as Phoenix were pushed to the wire in a controversial clash with fifth seeded Swindon Wildcats.
A frenetic opening period saw both goalies tested before Manchester’s Andy McKinney fired the champions into the lead on 8.55. However, a tough penalty on James Archer saw the Wildcats claw it back to 1-1 on the power play through Sam Smith.
Both sides took up a notch in the second stanza and Swindon coach Ryan Aldridge’s well-drilled power play unit edged the Wildcats in front on 27.27. Aaron Nell got the finishing touch, with assists for Jonas Hoog and Jan Kostal.
Phoenix hit back with an inspired goal from Czech hitman Michal Psunry, who blazed past Swindon’s defence before beating Stevie Lyle.
But parity lasted less than a minute, as Hoog scored for Swindon, leaving Phoenix with just 20 minutes to save their post-season.
The final period saw Hand’s men throw everything at the Wildcats and they got their reward when the impressive McKinney tied it at 3-3.
With nothing between the two sides, the game went into overtime. When Swindon’s Aku Pekkarinen was called for hooking, Phoenix made the man advantage pay and Frantisek Bakrlik’s thunderbolt of a shot sent Manchester to the final.
Swindon coach Aldridge was furious at the penalty call against Pekkarinen and after a game that saw both teams leave everything on the ice it was the standard of officiating that made the headlines.
Sunday’s final pitted Phoenix against their biggest rivals this season, Basingstoke Bison, who eliminated the Guildford Flames 5-2 in Saturday’s other semi-final.
Phoenix were without the injured Liam Chong and Jack Watkins, while James Neil played through the pain barrier after breaking a toe against Swindon. Youngster Jared Dickinson was drafted into the squad.
In a tense opening period, Bison looked the more dangerous and Phoenix had to work hard to contain their opponents.
Basingstoke upped their physical game after the break but Manchester battled back and took the lead on 28.47. With former Phoenix man Ciaran Long in the penalty box, Robin Kovar notched his first of the weekend with assists from Hand and Psurny.
Just 26 seconds later, however, Long redeemed himself by grabbing an unassisted equaliser.
Bison forward Joe Rand was then awarded a penalty shot after Kovar was judged to have hooked him to prevent a clear goalscoring opportunity. Rand made no mistake in the one-on-one with Steve Fone to make it 2-1.
Fone had to be at his best to prevent any further scoring in the period, producing some outstanding saves as Basingstoke tried to kill off the game.
Phoenix managed to pull level just two-and-a-half minutes into the final period through James Archer’s power play tally – but two quick-fire goals from Bison put the double beyond reach.
Joe Baird finished the first after a crisp move involving Rand and Aaron Connolly before Tomas Karpov beat an unsighted Fone fromthe blue line to make it 4-2.
Kovar narrowed the lead to one with just under four minutes to play but, with Fone pulled for an extra attacker in a last-ditch attempt to find an equaliser, the Bison scored on the empty net with two seconds on the clock to send the playoff trophy south.
After the game, Hand said: “We gave it everything we had and I am tremendously proud of the whole locker room for their efforts. Basingstoke were the better side and congratulations to them. We just had nothing left in the tank at the end but can hold our heads high.
“Thanks also to the fans. They have been brilliant all weekend and really gave us a boost throughout.”
Despite a disappointing end to the Coventry weekend, Phoenix can look back on 2013-14 campaign with pride, having secured the club’s second EPL title and cemented their reputation as perennial contenders for the EPL’s other silverware. Credit should go to owner NeilMorris, player-coach Tony Hand and all the players, staff and volunteers.
The end of the campaign also brought bittersweet news as veteran defenceman Robert Schnabel announced his retirement. The 6’5” Czech stopper arrived in Manchester in 2012, bringing a wealth of experience gained in Europe and North America, having appeared in 22 NHL outings for the Nashville Predators and over 280 American Hockey League games.
The “superintendent” provided an imposing presence on Phoenix’s blue line, as well as a howitzer of a slap shot at the other end of the ice. In 98 regular season games, he registered 19 goals and 50 assists for 69 points, along with 296 penalty minutes.
A club statement said: “Robert has been a fantastic servant of the Manchester Phoenix and has become an all-time fan favourite.”
EPL Playoff results
Saturday 5 April
Manchester Phoenix (1) 4-3 Swindon Wildcats (5)
Basingstoke Bison (2) 5-2 Guildford Flames (3)
Sunday 6 April
Basingstoke Bison 5-3 Manchester Phoenix
Pic: Yolanda Amor-Allan