What a game. What a comeback. What a result. What an occasion.
Peterborough Phantoms produced a fine turnaround to beat fierce rivals Milton Keynes Lightning 2-1 in the first leg of the EPL Cup final at a packed Planet Ice last night (March 12).
So often major sporting occasions fail to live up to the billing, but this was a wonderful exception to the rule as a near sell-out crowd of around 1,200 fans were treated to a terrific spectacle.
A heart-stopping, nail-biting clash, which featured heroic performances all over the ice, was settled by a trio of powerplay goals.
Former Phantoms man Jordan Cownie fired the visitors into an early advantage – much to the delight of a loud and large travelling army of supporters - as they cashed in a spell of five-on-three.
But it proved to be the only occasion in which they could beat the formidable Janis Auzins, although they did admittedly have another effort scrubbed out by referee Matt Thompson moments later.
Phantoms’ magnificent netminder was at his best with a series of vital saves before and after his side levelled late in the second period when Petr Stepanek unleashed a rocket of a shot.
The Czech giant’s effort was so fiercely struck that MK goalie Przemyslaw Odrobny didn’t even have time to kick the net off its moorings.
Aside from that cynical and all-too-regular trait, Odrobny is a classy performer. Like Auzins, he was a worthy recipient of a man-of-the-match gong.
But he was powerless to prevent Phantoms from completing their turnaround with little more than seven minutes to go.
The Polish shot-stopper couldn’t quite get hold of a Tom Norton blast from the blue-line as Phantoms camped in the MK zone during a powerplay.
Marc Levers’ stick helped to nudge the puck across the crease and Aussie import ace Wehebe Darge was on hand to pounce from point-blank range.
And Phantoms held firm to see out the remainder of the contest even if the final 70 seconds – after MK had pulled Odrobny and laid siege to their goal – seemed to last for an eternity.
“The guys well and truly deserved the result,” said Phantoms coach Slava Koulikov, whose regular post-game poker face threatened to burst with pride last night.
“We went down, but we fought for 60 minutes to turn the game round. We out-worked, out-fought and out-shot the best team in the league on paper.
“We had guys putting their bodies on the line from start to finish. They were willing to block shots in any way necessary.
“I must give huge credit to every single player. Each of them has a key role and did exactly what I asked of them in our best performance of the season.
“There were some big saves from Janis, some really smart work from the ‘D’ guys and some great play from the forwards.
“I think we deserved a few more goals, but we hit our target of winning the game and getting the two points.
“I can’t thank the supporters enough either. It was brilliant to see the building so full. They created a great atmosphere and I hope we gave them something to cheer about.”
Not only did victory pile all the pressure onto MK ahead of the second leg in Buckinghamshire this Saturday (March 18), it also ended a home hoodoo against their biggest rivals this season.
Lightning had triumphed in all previous visits to Bretton, but Phantoms proved a different beast last night.
They didn’t just skate through brick walls - they knocked them down, built them back up and skated through them again during a relentless 60-minute shift.
But they’ll have to do the same again – or possibly even more – to finish the job on enemy ice.
Three triumphs on MK ice already this season (one in the pre-season Ashes contest and two in EPL fixtures) will fill them with confidence.
Their victory last night means they are assured of reaching overtime at the very least, but Koulikov insists that is merely a ‘lifeline’ as his men will target victory inside the 60 minutes as they bid to lift their first trophy since the 2015 play-off triumph.
37:14 Stepanek (PP) ass: Archer/Padelek
52:49 Darge (PP) ass: Levers/Norton
9:22 Cownie (PP) ass: Holli/Bakrlik
PHANTOMS – Janis Auzins
MILTON KEYNES – Przemyslaw Odrobny