Beaten but far from disgraced Smith Recycling Milton Keynes Lightning showed they can compete with the big boys of the Elite League when they took Nottingham Panthers to overtime before losing 4-3 to a short-handed goal at Nottingham Ice Arena on Saturday.
Lightning may not have won the match but their large army of fans did earn the accolade of being the loudest to have visited the arena this season – Sheffield Steelers et al – in a game which drew a crowd of nearly 5,500.
And for a short period Lightning even led the encounter 3-1, having forged a single goal advantage on the powerplay in the final minute of the first session. There was an eerie silence from the home supporters at that stage before their heroes grabbed a goal back a few minutes later.
The visitors were afforded an early powerplay when Dan Spang was sidelined for delaying the game after just 25 seconds – Kevin King producing a fierce shot which netminder Michael Garnett did well to save.
Josh Shalla for Panthers and then Paul Phillips for Lightning produced shots which went off target before Miika Wiikman was called into serious action. The Finn was given a warm welcome and post match send off, having kept goal for Panthers last season.
King went close in the seventh minute, having been set up by new signing Tommy Mele, ahead of Kyle Essery and Quin Pompi both testing Garnett. At the other end Wiikman was showing why he was so popular in Nottingham as he dealt with efforts from Mathieu Brisebois and Tim Billingsley.
Garnett knocked a Ludwig Karlsson over the bar with Wiikman tested by a hard left wing effort from Yann Sauvé before Panthers captain Stephen Lee was penalised for a cross check on Francis Verreault-Paul at 18mins 9secs.
Thirty-six seconds into the powerplay Verreault-Paul made Lee pay in the best possible way, supplying King for the go ahead goal.
Into the second period there was an explosive start when Matt Nickerson and Mathieu Gagnon decided to do battle after a minute or so – both earning five minute majors for fighting.
Panthers denied former MK King, David Clarke, before man of the match Alexander Mokshantsev lit the lamp for his team on 23mins 21secs.
But the home crowd were silenced again four minutes later when Karlsson from the left set up Alex Forbes for a first time shot which rocketed into the net on 27mins 27secs – the Scot’s first goal for the team helping him earn man of the match.
Denny Kearney then found Guillaume Doucet in space to blast home for a 3-1 lead after 29mins 49secs.
Panthers cut the deficit less than two minutes later when Spang won possession in the home outfit’s offensive zone and beat Wiikman with a shot to the right of goal on 31mins 14secs.
In the final minutes of the period Wiikman made a great stick save from Robert Farmer and a further great block as Lightning held the slender advantage at the second break.
The home side drew level on 43mins 49secs with an unassisted Zack Phillips rocket into the net which gave Wiikman no chance.
As the period went on Panthers tried to turn up the pressure but despite hints of Lightning tiring they just would not give up the goal for the hosts to secure victory in regulation time.
MK players did claim a goal soon after Panthers’ equaliser but the effort was ruled out by referee Jan Schmejkal after consulting the video replay.
Lee saw Wiikman save his effort and the netminder took a Mokshantsev attempt with a glove before Denny Kearney shot high and wide.
There was a further bout of fisticuffs in the 50th minute when Kevin Gibson and Evan Mosey dropped the gloves – again five minutes for fighting was the verdict.
A high stick on Verreault-Paul by Jeff Brown earned MK another powerplay in the 51st minute and the same MK player went close with a shot which rebounded off the goalie.
In a final bid to secure the points Mele saw his attempt taken with the glove and Karlsson found no one to pass to when he broke up the flank.
Farmer, from distance, and Brisebois, both failed to break Wiikman, so overtime was the call.
A high stick call against Kearney eventually proved to be Lightning’s downfall as Phillips netted from Sauvé for the game winner for Panthers 20 seconds later on 61mins 31secs.
Lightning have come a long way since they replaced Kings at Planet Ice in 2002 – the latter coached by Rick Strachan being forced to move to Hobs Moat to become Solihull MK Kings before folding. One wonders what Strachan, now assistant coach at Panthers, made of it all.
There’s a sense that there is more to come from Pete Russell’s team.
Man of the match: Alex Forbes.