Manchester Phoenix suffered a blow-out 5-1 loss to title rivals Basingstoke Bison on Saturday night before a late blitz saw them rally to a 6-2 win over Bracknell Bees.
A hellish night in Hampshire had started fairly even, with Bison goalie Dean Skinns robbing Tony Hand with a point-blank glove save in the early exchanges.
But the hosts took the lead on 16.23 when Joe Greener’s deflection crept over the line via the skate of Phoenix netminder Stephen Fone and it was 2-0 just 26 seconds later when Basingstoke’s man of the match, Andrew Melachrino, cracked a shot into the roof of the net on a breakaway.
Any hopes of a Phoenix comeback were extinguished in the second period as the Bison piled on three goals in a devastating five-minute spell. Melachrino registered his second on 24.11 before Nicky Chinn swept home Ciaran Long’s rebound and Tomas Kopav beat Fone through the five-hole.
Frankie Bakrlik notched a consolation for the visitors on 35.46 but a goalless third period meant Basingstoke pulled out to a four-point lead in the EPL title race.
Phoenix, however, still have a clutch of games in hand and they set about turning them into points on the board the following night as the playoff-chasing Bracknell Bees visited the Altrincham Ice Dome, having lost just one of their previous six.
After a scrappy start, Phoenix found their rhythm midway through the first period when some neat passing from captain Luke Boothroyd and Bakrlik set up Robin Kovar to smash home the opener.
The Bees struck back just four minutes later through player-coach Lukas Smital but the momentum quickly see-sawed back to Manchester as Tony Hand’s wrist shot beat Bees’ goalie Alex Mettam up high.
Bracknell pushed for another equaliser in the second period but Fone made a couple of crucial saves to keep the score at 2-1. Phoenix then pushed home the man advantage on a power play when Bakrlik and Hand set up James Archer to make it 3-1.
The Bees pulled it to 3-2 with a power play goal of their own five minutes later – on Phoenix’s only penalty of the night – when Grant Round poked a loose puck into the net.
It remained close going into the final period but Phoenix came roaring out of the blocks to blow away the Bees.
Kovar notched his second of the night after just 49 seconds before Andy McKinney controlled a waist-high puck and beat Mettam for 5-2.
Bakrlik capped a man of the match performance with an unassisted goal to round off the scoring and complete a five-point haul for the night.
After the match, the Czech forward said: “It is great to get the points but it does not matter who scores or assists as long as the team wins.”
The victory means Basingstoke head the table with 66 points from 47 games, with Manchester snapping at their heals on 64 from 44. The stuttering Guildford Flames, who lost to the rock bottom Slough Jets on Saturday, are seeing their chances of retaining the title slip away on 60 points from 48 games.
Phoenix face a tough test of their title credentials this week with three games in as many days. First, Tony Hand’s men travel to Sheffield for the final derby of the season with arch-rivals the Steeldogs before a road trip to Bracknell on Saturday. The Swindon Wildcats visit Altrincham on Sunday, with face-off at 5.30pm.
Pic: Hollie Godber
Saturday 22 February
Basingstoke Bison 5-1 Manchester Phoenix
Bracknell Bees 2-4 Peterborough Phantoms
Milton Keynes Lightning 5-2 Sheffield Steeldogs
Slough Jets 2-1 Guildford Flames
Swindon Wildcats 7-2 Telford Tigers
Sunday 23 February
Guildford Flames 4-1 Swindon Wildcats
Manchester Phoenix 6-2 Bracknell Bees
Peterborough Phantoms 6-0 Slough Jets