MK Lightning 1-4 Sheffield Steelers (31st March)

By Paul Brookman

Smith Recycling Milton Keynes Lightning’s two year expedition into the top flight of British ice hockey drew to a close with an emotional farewell at Planet Ice on Sunday in which Sheffield Steelers’ large army of travelling supporters played their part.

For several minutes after their team had left the ice following the visitors’ 4-1 victory the Steelers fans stayed to join in with the home faithful’s deafening chants of ‘Let’s Go Lightning’ – demonstrating the huge respect MK’s supporters have accrued up and down the country during the brief foray of mixing with the best teams in the country.

Sadly the dream is over – for now – Lightning’s owners discovering what the bosses of Basingstoke Bison, Bracknell Bees and Hull’s former team had found out before them, life in the top echelons requires deep pockets to sustain. Only with the financial backing Guildford Flames are said to boast can a southern-based small rink team survive.

So it’s back next season to doing battle with the aforementioned clubs in a National League which may be of similar quality to Lightning’s former home in the English Premier League – apart from the absence of three of five imports. 

While Lightning’s withdrawal from the Elite League was tinged with sadness the departure from the EPL in a season in which MK won both the EPL Cup and play-offs was far more emotional, largely because fans thought they had witnessed the last of almost of the Brits who had served the club so well. Little did they know that they would be on their radar again two years later – albeit perhaps playing for opposition teams.

This year’s Lightning players have become heroes in their own way – battling against the odds in a team which was seriously under-resourced from the moment the first puck dropped in August. Following coach Doug McKay’s departure in November his replacements Ryan Lannon and in more especially Tim Wallace moulded the depleted squad into a team which was stronger than the sum of its parts.

Sadly that was not enough to produce enough wins to lift Lightning off the bottom of the table – Sheffield handing out the latest lesson with a roster which had almost as many players resting on the bench as MK had in their entire team. Those numbers – and quality counted – when it mattered most as the game went on.

Yet for all that it took until 18mins 8secs before Steelers eventually broke Lightning’s resolve after a breath-taking first period. Tanner Eberle brought a great save from goalie Patrick Killeen but the netminder could not stop the Canadian winger’s follow up from close range.

Steelers began the second period on the powerplay thanks to a 20th minute penalty on Harry Ferguson for roughing. MK survived that spell with a man short but Killeen was caught out again by Jordan Owens shot which crashed in from the left after 25mins 29secs while Sheffield were short-handed with Eberle serving time for slashing.

Robbie Baillargeon and James Griffin – playing as a forward – put pressure on the Steelers’ goal but not enough to produce a goal before Baillargeon had an attempt which goalie Jackson Whistle took with his glove. Georgs Golovkovs then advanced up the right, turned full circle and fired in only for the netminder to block.

Ryan Martinelli shot over Killeen’s arm high into the goal to take Sheffield’s tally to three without reply and things could have been worse for the hosts less than two minutes later when Robert Dowd scrambled the puck into the net only for the attempt to be disallowed – the puck having been kicked in.

It was not until Dowd’s Great Britain team-mate Ben O’Connor was called for holding in the 50th minute that Lightning bagged their consolation goal – Golovkovs’ angled pass finding Wallace just inside the blue line to blast through traffic at 52mins 56secs.

With 2mins 20secs remaining – and O’Connor in the sin bin again for slashing – Killeen was withdrawn for the extra skater. Although the goalie had to return to his net he was off again shortly after. That allowed John Armstrong to score on the empty net with 1min 36secs remaining – despite Wallace’s bid to impede his progress.

Following the buzzer the Lightning squad returned to the ice as Wallace paid tribute to the fans who have supported them through thick and thin – mostly the latter – this year. In return the near 2,000 strong crowd remained, Steelers fans included, to make their feelings known with chants which seemed to go on forever.

Man of the match: Tim Wallace (sponsored by Bill's Minibus and Coach Hire)

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