Head coach Slava Koulikov saw his Peterborough Phantoms team reach the NIHL Division One South play-off final – then admitted he feels for the team they knocked out.
Phantoms lost both legs of their semi-final clash against Swindon at the weekend, but still advanced after the Wildcats included an ineligible player in their roster for the opening clash last Saturday (March 24).
The Wiltshire side’s 4-2 win was awarded as a 5-0 victory to Phantoms with Swindon then triumphing 6-4 in Bretton last night (March 25).
And Koulikov was the first to admit that his side’s passage into a showdown against league champions Basingstoke was anything but comfortable.
Phantoms were without import star Darius Pliskauskas again and then lost Owen Griffiths to a shoulder injury early in the opening leg.
And their resources were stretched even further when Nathan Pollard was thrown out in the second period of the second leg for a high-sticking offence. Phantoms were comfortable 2-0 leaders on the night at that point, but were then rocked by a Swindon revival before a late empty-net goal from Nathan Salem sparked relief.
“I know how Swindon feel to be in a tough situation which is out of the players’ control,” said Koulikov. “We were in a position like that in the cup earlier in the season.
“Of course it is not great to win like that, but a mistake was made. I feel for Aaron (Swindon coach, Nell), their players and their fans.
“I didn’t find out what had happened until 2.50pm and the guys weren’t told until 3.25pm, but it didn’t really change our gameplan.
“We were 2-0 up early in the second period and playing well. That would have put us level on aggregate if the first game had not been awarded and who knows what would have happened from there?
“For half a game we executed our plan very well, but the penalty for Nathan was a big moment. What did Swindon have until then? Nothing. Zero.
“We were 2-0 up and controlling the game when we got that penalty and it changed the momentum. We were already missing two of our top four forwards and losing Nathan made us even more short-staffed.
“Swindon scored a bunch of goals and put us on the back-foot. I have to admit it was very uncomfortable to watch in the third period.
“We did not go out there to play defensive hockey for 20 minutes, but Swindon’s goals just pushed us back. We managed to get a bit of momentum again and stop the chances before having to dig deep and survive in the last two or three minutes after they pulled their goalie.
“Maybe we were bound to get a bit of luck at some point after what happened in the cup, losing on penalties in another cup and missing out on the league title on goal difference, but it is a shame that it happened at the expense of another team.”
Phantoms’ reward is a two-legged showdown against Basingstoke this weekend. The two teams boasted identical head-to-head records in the regular season with the Bison pipping the city men to the crown on goal difference.
Phantoms are also now guaranteed a place in the NIHL Final Four weekend in Coventry on April 7/8 when they and Basingstoke will do battle there against Division One North finalists Sheffield and Telford for the overall play-off crown.
Koulikov added: “We are going into the final two weekends of the season with a chance of winning two trophies and a lot of teams would like to be in our position right now.
“It would be tough against Basingstoke if we were at full-strength – it will be even harder if we have guys missing.
“It’s a weekend where every guy has to be at his best and every aspect of our play has to be perfect.”