Peterborough Phantoms will finish the year with a share of the NIHL Division One South leadership - despite a second successive night of frustration.
The city team were pipped 3-2 by Basingstoke following sudden-death penalties as their final 2018 outing went right down to the wire in front of one of the biggest Planet Ice crowds seen for some time.
Phantoms twice lost the lead as they had to settle for a single point from the Sunday (December 30) clash despite head coach Slava Koulikov’s claim that his side were ‘way better’ than the visiting Bison. They were ultimately undone by Basingstoke import Michal Klejna who tucked away all three of the away side’s successful penalties (rules now allow a player to take more than one penalty once a shoot-out has reached sudden-death).
The latest setback came only 24 hours after Phantoms were condemned to a 3-2 defeat at title rivals Swindon by a goal inside the final minute of another important fixture. Those two sides now sit level at the second-tier summit.
Koulikov said: “We have been involved in a lot of tight games this season which have been settled by one goal and quite often those results have gone our way.
“But this weekend that hasn’t been the case despite the fact that we produced really good performances on both nights.
“There is no doubt we deserved a point at the very least in Swindon and I then felt we were way better than Basingstoke with no disrespect meant to them.
“We were all over them in the first and third periods, but we couldn’t find that killer goal to finish the game despite having a lot of possession and plenty of creativity.
“We challenged the guys to make sure we finish the year on top of the league and we are there level with Swindon.
“We can all enjoy bringing in the new year and then we’re straight back to work on Wednesday night.”
Ales Padelek was perfectly placed to tap in an early Phantoms opener against Basingstoke after Glenn Billing’s effort found him at the back door.
Only a wonder save denied Martins Susters a second goal before they were pegged back in unfortunate fashion.
A George Norcliffe shot was saved by netminder Jordan Marr only for the loose puck to go in off the skate of Corey McEwen.
But the Phantoms frontman made immediate and impressive amends when restoring the lead at the right end just 23 seconds later after being picked out by a fine Susters pass.
Basingstoke’s response was to agitate with Elliott Dewey attempting to jump Nathan Pollard from behind - a move he no doubt regretted when the tables were turned as the Phantoms man shook off his gloves and landed a couple of tasty blows to get the take-down.
There was much less incident of note in the middle session when Phantoms saw their advantage wiped out for a second time.
Klejna got the faintest of touches to a Norcliffe shot from out wide with Marr left unsighted.
Norcliffe and Alex Sampford had both been denied by Marr in the moments before that Bison equaliser and Phantoms defenceman Scott Robson had to resort to desperate measures to prevent the visitors from hitting the front in the closing seconds of the period.
Danny Ingoldsby climbed out of the penalty box and burst into the zone with a diving Robson taking down the Bison man as he prepared to pull the trigger - an act certainly worthy of spending two minutes in the box.
That penalty was successfully killed before Phantoms gained the upper hand for much of the final session without turning their dominance into goals.
McEwen fired wide after intercepting a loose pass while Padelek was denied by Bison netminder Alex Mettam from a tight angle.
There was no late drama despite Phantoms going on the powerplay with 23 seconds left on the clock and they were also unable to make their numerical advantage count in five minutes of overtime which were unusually lacking in chances at both ends.
The contest was eventually settled on penalties with each side only managing to put away one of their opening three attempts.
Klejna and Padelek were the men to oblige while Susters and Petr Stepanek (Phantoms) and player-coach Ashley Tait and Adam Harding (Basingstoke) couldn’t find the twine.
Bison again turned to Klejna in sudden-death as he tucked the puck away twice more. Billing successfully replied on the first occasion but Padelek couldn’t find the net again after stepping up a second time.
It was an outcome which left the top four teams – Phantoms, Swindon, Basingstoke and Bracknell –covered by just two points as a thrilling title race enters 2019.
Phantoms travel to Bracknell on Saturday (January 5) before hosting fifth-placed Raiders at Planet Ice the following night (January 6).
2.23 Padelek ass: Billing/J. Ferrara
9.29 McEwen ass: Susters/Buglass
9.06 Norcliffe unassisted
31.15 Klejna ass: Norcliffe/Ralph
PHANTOMS - Jordan Marr
BASINGSTOKE - George Norcliffe