Peterborough Phantoms could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of their fiercest rivals.
For the third time in their last four games – and the fifth time in all this season – they suffered English Premier League defeat at the hands of Milton Keynes last night (January 10).
A 2-0 reverse at Planet Ice extended an unwanted record against the Lightning, but Phantoms had better come up with a plan to beat them and fast. The two teams meet twice more in the coming days in an EPL Cup semi-final.
Those aren’t the only worrying statistics for Phantoms coach Slava Koulikov to ponder either. His team have now lost five of their last six games (a 6-3 success in Sheffield on Saturday night the exception) and also failed to find the net in 12 of their last 14 periods of hockey (a barren run only briefly interrupted against the Steeldogs).
They’ve also dropped to third in the standings after being leapfrogged by Lightning last night and find themselves seven points behind relentless leaders Basingstoke.
But Koulikov, who made the bold decision to rest import netminder Janis Auzins and hand a first EPL start to back-up Adam Long last night, does not appear concerned. Quite the opposite in fact.
He declared himself delighted with the performance of his men on a night when their blank owed more to the brilliance of visiting goaltender Dean Skinns, who managed a 39-shot shut-out, than their own shortcomings.
“It was a good night in everything other than the fact we didn’t get the two points,” insisted Koulikov.
“The team played very well compared to recent defeats. Adam showed why he deserved his chance as he was outstanding and we also played well in all zones.
“We created a lot of chances and, if we can play to this level in the cup games, we will be in a good place.
“The fact we have now lost five times to MK isn’t something I will worry about. Two of those games went to overtime and two others, including last night, were single-goal games until late in the third period.
“Skinns is a netminder who always seems to play really well against us. He was brilliant in our rink a couple of times last season for Basingstoke and he stood tall again last night.
“I think both teams had one eye on the first leg of the semi-final on Wednesday. We were two-or-three players down and MK were a couple of guys light as well.”
The fact defenceman Scott Robson and forward Marc Levers sat the game out was understandable given they are carrying knocks, but Auzins’ omission was raised plenty more sets of eyebrows ahead of face-off.
It wasn’t the talking point it might have been though due to the performance of deputy Long who was assured and capable. The 20 year-old only learned of his selection an hour-and-three-quarters ahead of face-off and it was only his fifth on-ice action of the season.
He certainly didn’t look rusty as he kept out all but two of the 44 shots unleashed on his target.
He was beaten early in the second period by a thunderous Blaz Emersic blast from a tight angle and again late in the final session, when the game was still in the balance, as Bobby Chamberlain lit the lamp short-handed after punishing a rare error from Tom Norton.
But Long’s performance was almost as impressive as that of Skinns at the opposite end of the ice. The MK goalie was tested throughout, but stood strong apart from being beaten on two occasions in the final period.
Ales Padelek saw the first of those efforts come back off a post while Will Weldon did succeed in forcing the puck over the line in a delayed penalty situation, but the net was off its moorings and referee Stefan Hogarth’s whistle had sounded.
And the resulting powerplay certainly did not go to plan as MK man Chamberlain was rewarded for chasing down the puck into Phantoms’ defensive zone with a decisive, if rather gift-wrapped, goal.
Although defeated, Phantoms were far from disgraced as Koulikov pointed out. But, while the coach’s positive assessment will do plenty to re-assure supporters that Phantoms’ season is not in danger of nosediving, but it will do little to appease those players struggling so badly to put the puck in the net.
Imports Darius Pliskauskas and Milan Baranyk are two men noticeably short on form, something Phantoms will need to change to maintain their hopes of lifting trophies and finishing in the top four of the league standings.
Their next league action is on Saturday (January 16) when they travel to Hull (5.30pm) ahead of a home date against Manchester the following night (January 17, 5.30pm).
Those two fixtures fall in the middle of the EPL Cup semi-final against Milton Keynes which gets underway with a first leg in Buckinghamshire on Wednesday (January 13, 7.45pm).
23:19 Emersic ass: Hook/Griffin
55:54 Chamberlain unassisted
Phantoms – Milan Baranyk
Milton Keynes – James Griffin