So often big sporting clashes fail to live up to the hype – but Peterborough Phantoms and Basingstoke Bison bucked the trend last night (March 4).
The two sets of NIHL Division One South title-chasers served up a super spectacle in front of a terrific Planet Ice crowd thought to have topped a thousand.
There was quality, intensity, physicality and the odd sprinkling of controversy on a night when the losing team ended up looking happier than the victors following a late twist.
Phantoms successfully completed their mission of claiming a seventh successive victory as a pair of Glenn Billing powerplay goals and a Nathan Salem blast earned a 3-2 success and carried them two points clear at the summit.
But arguably the most important strike came from Bison captain Aaron Connolly late on as his side cut their arrears to a single goal and prevented Phantoms from seizing the initiative in the honours chase.
A victory by two clear goals would have given the city men a better head-to-head return in the four-game series between the two sides, but Connolly’s key contribution means they now boast identical records against each other after two wins apiece in four games all settled by single-goal margins. Phantoms’ triumph last night followed up a 2-1 victory in Hampshire in the two sides’ first league meeting back in December, while Basingstoke have recorded 4-3 wins in both rinks.
Assuming they take care of their own business in their Saturday (March 10) league finale at home to Streatham, Phantoms must rely on the worst two Division One South teams (according to the standings at least) helping their cause. Basingstoke face second-bottom Invicta Dynamos and basement boys Cardiff Fire in their closing two games next weekend.
Should all three of those matches go as expected – and Phantoms and Basingstoke finish locked together at the summit - the title will be decided by goal difference. Phantoms are currently up six (88 to 82) in that regard although Bison do boast that game in hand.
The likeliest outcome is that the city side will spend next Sunday night (March 11) nervously tuned to a live stream from the Welsh capital with their title fate in the hands of the Fire.
The only thing guaranteed at this stage is that the team which prevails will be worthy champions. There has been little between them – on the ice and in the table - throughout a season that has always looked likely to go down to the wire.
Phantoms hit the front just before the mid-point of the opening period in the fourth and final showdown last night as Billing got a tip to a Darius Pliskauskas shot during a powerplay.
Their advantage doubled little more than a minute-and-a-half into the second period as Salem unleashed a rocket from a seemingly impossible angle that took Bison netminder Dean Skinns by surprise.
Billing was millimetres away from striking again moments later after Skinns juggled a blast from the excellent Salem, but a short-benched Bison who were without one of their imports – Roman Malinik – due to a family bereavement, took advantage of a golden opportunity to halve their arrears.
Phantoms couldn’t withstand a lengthy spell of five-on-three following a pair of particularly soft calls from referee Stephen Matthews against Owen Griffiths and Robbie Ferrara. Billing also earned a 10-minute misconduct for a petulant show of frustration which only increased when Ivan Antonov got the telling touch as bodies sprawled and sticks tangled in front of the net after an initial shot hit a post.
Phantoms were back on top by the end of the middle session and only a fine Skinns save denied captain James Ferrara a third goal less than 20 seconds into the final period. That did eventually arrive with just under 10 minutes remaining as Billing pounced after Salem charged towards the net from out wide.
But Basingstoke weren’t about to roll over. Connolly saw one effort superbly stopped by Phantoms netminder Euan King and flicked another chance up over the net before making no mistake with 1:55 left on the clock, gobbling up a rebound after an initial save.
The celebrations that followed highlighted the possible significance of that goal, but more key moments still lie ahead in the final weekend of the league campaign.
9:52 Billing (PP) ass Pliskauskas/Jamieson
21:32 Salem ass: Billing/Padelek
50:22 Billing (PP) ass: Salem/Pliskauskas
29:25 Antonov (PP) ass: Connolly/Scott
58:05 Connolly (DP) ass: Sutton/Smith
Phantoms – Nathan Salem
Basingstoke – Dan Scott