Manchester Phoenix will look to bounce back from Wednesday’s 7-1 blowout loss to title favourites Guildford Flames when they take on Slough Jets and Swindon Wildcats this weekend.
Tony Hand’s men travel to Berkshire on Saturday night aiming to snap a run of four straight defeats and face a Jets team just three points behind them with a game in hand.
Phoenix can take some encouragement from the fact that they have not lost to Slough in regulation this season, taking four wins from five meetings and suffering a single defeat in a shootout.
The Jets have had an up and down campaign but can be a match for anyone on their day. In the past month, a loss to bottom club Telford Tigers has been outweighed by two wins over second place Basingstoke Bison.
Slough have gone 3-2-0 since losing 7-3 in Altrincham on 3 February, a run that includes an 8-0 demolition of Sheffield Steeldogs and a 7-6 shootout win against the Bison.
Czech forward Frantisek Bakrlik and Lithuanian speedster Darius Pliskauskas provide their main offensive threat, with both players breaking the 50-point mark this season. The Jets also have the EPL’s top scorer amongst defenceman in Mindaugas Kieras.
The recent addition of former Sheffield D-man Pavel Gomeniuk has helped to shore up things at the back, while ex-Phoenix fan favourite Ciaran Long will be out to create trouble for his former employers.
Sunday sees Swindon visit the Altrincham Ice Dome with Phoenix out to avenge a 6-1 shellacking at the Link Centre earlier this month.
This will be the last regular season game against the Wiltshire outfit and with the last two meetings on Phoenix’s home ice ending 5-4, it promises plenty of goals and incident.
The Wildcats boast a fearsome forward pairing in Brit Aaron Nell and line-mate Jonas Hoog, who each have 98 points in 43 games. Finnish import Henri Sandvik has chipped in another ten goals and nine assists in just nine games since joining the club on 18 January, making Swindon an attacking force to be reckoned with.
However, coach Ryan Aldridge recently lost some steel and production when popular forward Nicky Watt left for Basingstoke.
In defence Swindon can call on imposing 6’5” Czech D-man Tomas Fojtik, who leads the team in penalty minutes since the departure of Watt.
All in all, it promises to be another testing weekend for Tony Hand’s men. After seeing his side slip 13 points behind league leaders Guildford, the veteran player-coach will be looking for a couple of big wins to build momentum ahead of the EPL Cup semi-final against the Flames on 2 March and the playoffs.
Phoenix are still without starting goalie Steve Fone, although the good news is that an operation on the 25-year-old’s groin injury has been a “resounding success” and he hopes to recover in time for the postseason.
“It will be tough again with us still missing Foney,” Hand said.
“We will work hard as always but my main aim is to get the guys fit for the cup semi-final and the playoffs while finishing as high up the league as we can. I am hoping to have Stephen back for the quarter-finals. I spoke to him today and it is just time to heal that is needed now.”
By Andy Jowett
Pic: Rai Pekkanen