Peterborough Phantoms’ passage into the NIHL Division One South play-offs final will provide a sporting poser in years to come.
Just how did the city team make progress after losing both legs of their semi-final showdown against Swindon?
Phantoms were beaten 4-2 in the opening leg in Wiltshire on Saturday night (March 24) and then went down 6-4 in their own Bretton rink last night (March 25).
Surely that should have added up to a 10-6 aggregate defeat and signalled the end of a campaign in which silverware agonisingly eluded Slava Koulikov’s men?
But, no. There was a twist. And a rather significant one at that.
It emerged yesterday afternoon – only a couple of hours before the puck was due to drop for the second leg – that Swindon had named an ineligible player in their roster for their Saturday triumph.
Their squad included youngster Josh Kelly, who could not feature in a play-off clash due to not having appeared in 25 per-cent of Swindon’s league games. The League Management Committee ruled the fixture be awarded as a 5-0 win to Phantoms instead even though Kelly did not have a single shift on the ice.
It seems a rather excessive punishment for an entirely innocent and certainly no more than sloppy crime and the Wildcats’ plight drew sympathy from plenty of senior figures within the Peterborough organisation.
After all, they know how it feels to find themselves on the wrong end of officialdom this season. Don’t forget Phantoms were farcically booted out of the NIHL National Cup when opponents Hull refused to agree to a date to play what would have been a crucial game.
It changed the landscape of this semi-final drastically. Instead of having to overturn a two-goal deficit, Phantoms now had a five-goal cushion to protect.
It turned what should have been a hell of a play-off humdinger into . . . . well actually it was still a hell of a play-off humdinger!
Phantoms appeared intent on snatching defeat from the gaping jaws of victory during a final-period collapse which left a seemingly impossible Swindon task looking entirely possible.
And it wasn’t until Nathan Salem rolled the puck into an empty net with 17 seconds left on the clock that Phantoms could finally breathe easily.
Eyes had been rubbed in disbelief, nails had been bitten to the quick and backsides had been parked on the very edges of seats long before then.
Even the poker face of head coach Slava Koulikov cracked. His team hit the ice holding a royal flush, but looked more like a side getting lucky on the river as Salem ensured they won the hand.
Phantoms earlier looked to have matters well under control. They survived the expected onslaught from frustrated Swindon in the opening minutes before hitting the front as Ales Padelek coolly put away a classy Will Weldon pass.
The excellent Weldon then doubled the advantage little more than 90 seconds into the middle session, but any thoughts of a smooth passage were dismissed when Phantoms lost Nathan Pollard on a match penalty (later downgraded to a game offence) for bloodying Swindon defenceman Stevie Whitfield with an accidental high-stick.
It was another case of the punishment not really fitting the crime and left an already short-staffed Phantoms – missing injured forwards Darius Pliskauskas and Owen Griffiths – even lighter on man-power.
They were also tasked with a five-minute penalty to kill, but they conceded to Chris Jones during that spell before a leveller from Sam Bullas followed just past the mid-point of the contest.
Bullas then put Swindon ahead as a controversial goal – the visiting forward rugby-tackled Phantoms netminder Euan King into the net when also ensuring the puck crossed the line – was allowed to stand.
Salem delivered a swift reply within a minute to ensure Phantoms’ returned to the locker room level on the night and there was no hint of the panic that was to come.
Swindon struck three times in little more than two minutes early in the final period – twice from player-coach Aaron Nell on a delayed penalty and a powerplay, and once through import Max Birbraer – to leave Phantoms in survival mode.
Phantoms did gradually regain their composure only to face another ferocious assault in the closing minutes as Swindon sacrificed netminder Renny Marr in favour of an extra skater for a last-ditch attempt to save the tie.
The city men were pushed back into their zone with Swindon cutting off almost all routes of escape until captain James Ferrara and Weldon worked the puck into Salem to register arguably their easiest goal of the season at the end of one of their toughest nights.
And two more daunting tests lie ahead next weekend when they face Basingstoke – the team that pipped them to the league title on goal difference – in the final.
Phantoms host the Bison, who beat London 10-4 in the other semi, in the opening leg on Saturday (March 31, 7pm) ahead of an Easter Sunday return in Hampshire (5.30pm).
Both teams also advance to the NIHL Final Four weekend in Coventry on April 7/8 where they will do battle with the NIHL Division One North play-off finalists – Telford and Sheffield.
7:44 Padelek ass: Weldon/Jamieson
21:32 Weldon ass: Robson/R. Ferrara
38:52 Salem ass: Billing/J. Ferrara
59:43 Salem (ENG) ass: J. Ferrara/Weldon
27:24 Jones (PP) ass: Birbraer/Nell
30:53 Bullas ass: Birbraer/Nell
38:03 Bullas ass: Nell/Liddiard
42:24 Nell (DP) ass: Whitfield/Liddiard
43:45 Nell (PP) ass: Jones
44:43 Birbraer ass: Nell/Bullas
Phantoms – Will Weldon
Swindon – Chris Jones