A superb Liam Stewart hat-trick and the return of two defencemen from injury, plus a surprise appearance from a former Lightning forward steered the team to a well-deserved 8-4 win over Basingstoke Bison at Planet Ice on Friday.

The victory sent Lightning a point clear at the top of the National Ice Hockey League with Lewis Clifford’s charges looking increasingly likely to be there or thereabouts with each week that passes.

For the first time in a couple of months James Griffin and Sam Russell were able to return to MK’s defence and both gave assured performances as the team, when five on five, gave Bison few opportunities. Equally welcome was the return of Tom Carlon for the first time since the 2016-2017 season – the MK Thunder player looking like he had never been away.

Carlon helped to fill the gap left by the absences of captain Russ Cowley and the injured Adam Laishram. Never-the-less Clifford was forced to shuffle the lines a little with Carlon joining Stewart and Hallden Barnes-Garner on the second line with the usual combination of Chamberlain-Talbot and Norris elevated to the starting line.

It was Carlon who had a hand in the opening goal in a move started by Ross Green – Stewart finishing off with a shot into an effectively empty net after goalie Alex Mettam failed to block TC’s effort at 9mins 24secs.

By that stage MK had enjoyed most of the early pressure on Bison, although Adam Harding was unlucky with a shot that pinged the metalwork. Following Stewart’s goal, the hosts continued to look threatening with Stewart setting up Green for a blocked shot before Zack Milton going all the way for the visitors before shooting wide.

Barnes-Garner was credited with getting the final touch to a long-range blast from Stewart which led to MK’s second goal on 18mins 34secs – Griffin also gaining an assist. But within seconds Bison were level as Alex Roberts supplied Milton to defeat goalie Matt Smital at 19mins 4secs in what was the travellers’ only even handed strike.

Bobby Chamberlain’s protests led to a roughing call on him and that resulted in Bison’s equaliser on the powerplay just 11 seconds into the middle period. Milton was again on target with help from Roberts and Aidan Doughty.

However, in the following eight minutes that was almost as good as it got for Bison with Roberts having a shot blocked ahead of Chamberlain, Nixon and Carlon all being denied by Mettam. Chamberlain edged MK back in front when he atoned for his penalty by firing high to the right of Mettam from Sam Talbot’s set up at 28mins 2secs.

Lightning were soon defending another penalty kill as Eddie Landsbergs was caught cross-checking – it did not stop Chamberlain and Talbot sending Stewart away for a breakaway short-handed goal on 29mins 14secs. The goal was almost immediately negated when Roberts got in on the scoring act for Bison, still on the powerplay, assisted by Harding and Ashley Tait at 30mins 19secs.

Back at full strength, MK didn’t take long to re-establish their two goal lead when Sean Norris won possession in front of the Bison goal and shot past Mettam on the turn at 31mins 36secs.

By now Bison were reeling and Barnes-Garner fired towards goal for Stewart to complete his hat-trick on33mins 27secs. That was enough to prompt a timeout by the visitors with the instruction seeming to be ‘get more physical.’

The consequence was a flurry of penalties, mostly for MK and it was when the hosts were a man short that Basingstoke narrowed the gap with another powerplay goal, thanks to Doughty from Tait and Roberts to make it 6-4 at the second break.

The goal was to be the last for Bison – only 23 seconds into the final session Griffin danced his way up the ice unimpeded, rounded Mettam and put the puck in the net for MK’s seventh.

MK were untroubled by a tripping call on Carlon a couple of minutes later and rounded off their tally at 49mins 48secs when Talbot scored on the rebound from Norris. That led to the end of Mettam’s night, his replacement Jordan Lawday having little to do as an MK victory was already assured.

None of Lightning’s goals came on powerplays and one was short-handed – a sign of potential champions in the making?

Man of the match: Liam Stewart.