Play-off hockey arrived at Planet Ice a few weeks ahead of schedule last night (March 6).
The city team’s often thrilling and occasionally controversial 5-4 success against Swindon in the English Premier League had the feel of a do-or-die game in the chase for honours.
Both sides had a man thrown out during the first period, a scuffle erupted early in the second period and there was high drama in the final seconds of the third period as Swindon had a last-gasp leveller washed out by referee Matt Thompson.
Throw in the fact that Phantoms twice battled back from behind before emerging from their fourth game in five days with victory and it added up to arguably their finest four-point weekend of the season.
It was a terrific response to their EPL Cup Final disappointment of last week and one which ensured Phantoms remain a point clear of their knockout conquerors Guildford, having played a game fewer, in the pursuit of second place.
Phantoms have also closed to within seven points of leaders Basingstoke, who will seal the title if able to win both of their games this coming weekend.
Coach Slava Koulikov said: “We knew we had to put the disappointment of the EPL Cup out of our minds straight away to concentrate on the league again.
“The guys deserve great credit to come through two tough games at a time when they were emotionally and physically down after missing out on a trophy during the week.
“Their heads might not always have been in the right place, but their hearts definitely were and they showed the spirit they have to come from behind in Sheffield on Saturday night and again against Swindon.
“We will get plenty of rest into the guys this week and they have earned that.”
Phantoms took to the ice without injured defencemen Craig Wallis and Jason Buckman, and rested forward Martins Susters.
Edgars Bebris soon joined that trio in having a watching brief following his early ejection for a check-to-the-head offence on Callum Buglass - although both teams were left a man down as the groggy Wildcats man was in no state to continue.
Swindon were ahead by then courtesy of Adam Harding’s fine finish on a breakaway and Buglass soon had some company in the visiting dressing room as Neil Liddiard collected his own marching orders for a boarding offence that left Marc Levers bloodied.
By then Swindon had doubled their advantage when Tomas Rutkis made their five-minute powerplay count following Bebris’ exit.
Phantoms halved their arrears by also striking on the numerical exit that followed Liddiard’s dismissal. There was an element of controversy about it though as Craig Scott tipped in a Tom Norton blast.
The puck appeared to go in and straight back out of the net although Swindon players were adamant it had simply hit a post and stayed out altogether.
It was allowed to stand and was followed by a Phantoms leveller little more than five minutes into the middle session when Ales Padelek seized control of the puck, skated into the zone, delayed his shot and then fired past Wildcats netminder Jordan Hedley.
Parity proved to be short-lived as Swindon captain Jan Kostal slammed a Tomasz Malasinski pass past Janis Auzins, but Phantoms again had a response as Milan Baranyk crafted and finished their third goal.
That left the contest finely poised, but Phantoms came on strong in the final period of their hectic recent schedule to clinch a weekend win-double full of character and passion.
Will Weldon edged them ahead for the first time when following his own chip into the zone, dodging the flailing stick of a defenceman and powering the puck past Hedley.
And then the clincher followed with little more than three minutes to go as Darius Pliskauskas latched onto a Padelek pass off the boards, stepped inside and unleashed a ripper of a shot into the top corner.
But that certainly wasn’t the end of the drama. Swindon’s decision to pull netminder Hedley paid dividends when Malasinski halved the deficit.
And they thought they had grabbed a dramatic leveller with only six seconds still on the clock, but the celebrations were soon cut short as referee Thompson ruled a Carlo Finucci effort had been kicked in.
The two teams do battle again in Wiltshire on Saturday (March 12) before Phantoms hit the road again the following day (March 13) to go to bottom-of-the-table Bracknell.
They’re not back on home ice until Wednesday, March 16 when hosting Telford.
15:18 Scott ass: Norton
25:09 Padelek ass: Gibson
33:47 Baranyk ass: Scott/Levers
51:08 Weldon unassisted
56:53 Pliskauskas ass: Gibson/Padelek
4:32 Harding ass: Hoog/Malasinski
12:14 Rutkis (PP) ass: Kostal
29:07 Kostal ass: Malasinski/Hoog
58:01 Malasinski ass: Finucci/Kostal
Phantoms – Ales Padelek