Manchester Phoenix maintained their 100 per cent start to the English Premier League season with back-to-back victories over Slough Jets at the weekend.
Phoenix started their road trip to Berkshire on the back foot (or skate) as first Richard Bentham and then former Jet Frantisek Bakrlik were sent to the box, but Tony Hand’s men killed the penalties and snatched the lead when Liam Chong poked home a loose puck on 7.01.
After some end-to-end action, Slough put the visitors under sustained pressure and equalised just under seven minutes into the second period. With the ref’s arm up for a delayed penalty, Jets player-coach and former Phoenix favourite Slava Koulikov forced a pad save from Steve Fone – but another ex-Manchester man, Ciaran Long, rifled home the rebound.
Chong grabbed his second of the night when he pounced on another rebound eight minutes later to edge Phoenix in front before line-mate Richard Bentham added to his two assists with the third goal two minutes into the final stanza.
Things went from bad to worse for the Jets shortly after when their fiery captain Michael Wales picked up a 10-minute misconduct penalty to go with his two-minute minor for elbowing after a full and frank exchange of views with the ref.
Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand added a long-range insurance goal on 44.48 before Darius Pliskauskas netted a consolation for the hosts.
After taking two points back up the M40, Phoenix welcomed the Jets to Altrincham looking to make it four wins out of four.
Slough were without starting goalie Greg Rockman, who felt unwell after travelling north from a knock taken the night before.
Understudy Danny Milton was picking the puck out of the net after just 209 seconds, as Phoenix swept from one end of the ice to the other and Bakrlik hammered an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
Manchester’s Robin Kovar then clipped the bar before the Jets produced their own lightning-quick counter to equalise on 7.16 when summer signing Ales Padelek beat Fone up high.
Both goalies impressed as they kept the score at 1-1 for the second period, although Slough’s Ciaran Long had a close call for a goal. From some angles, it appeared the puck may have entered the net near the post and rebounded straight out but the refs did not call it – and the Jets did not protest too much.
After surviving that scare, Phoenix re-took the lead three minutes into the third period when James Neil’s chipped pass was swept home by Bakrlik.
But “Frankie” was then failed to clear his own zone with Phoenix a man down and Long cracked home a shot to make it 2-2.
Just as a tense game looked like it would be heading to overtime, Hand showed once again why even at 46, he is one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league. With Manchester short-handed, the wily veteran picked out a perfect pass to release Michal Psurny, who beat Milton one-on-one to raise the roof at the Ice Dome.
With reigning champions the Guildford Flames falling to Milton Keynes Lightning in overtime on Saturday night, Phoenix’s back-to-back wins were enough to lift them a point clear at the top of the league. It is still very early days but, after very little preseason preparation time, Hand and his men will be delighted to open their campaign with a solid winning streak.
Phoenix will look to continue that streak when they travel to third place Swindon Wildcats on Saturday before the Peterborough Phantoms come to Altrincham on Sunday (face-off 5.30pm).
Saturday 21 Sept
Basingstoke Bison 3-1 Bracknell Bees
Milton Keynes Lightning 5-4
Sheffield Steeldogs 4-3 Peterborough Phantoms
Slough Jets 2-4 Manchester Phoenix
Swindon Wildcats 5-1 Telford Tigers
Sunday 22 Sept
Bracknell Bees 2-6 Milton Keynes Lightning
Guildford Flames 7-6 Sheffield Steeldogs
Manchester Phoenix 3-2 Slough Jets
Peterborough Phantoms 3-4 Swindon Wildcats
Telford Tigers 2-3 Basingstoke Bison
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Richard Amor-Allan