By Paul Brookman
Smith Recycling Milton Keynes Lightning were shown just how difficult life is likely to be among hockey’s elite when they went down 5-2 to Cardiff Devils in their opening Challenge Cup game in Wales on Saturday.
But it was not until the final few seconds that reigning league champions Devils made absolutely sure of victory with an empty net goal from Matt Pope after goalie Miika Wiikman was withdrawn in favour of the extra skater.
Pope who was plying his trade for Tohoku Free Blades in the Asia League last season registered two seconds from the final buzzer after being set up by Sean Bentivoglio and long serving Devil Mark Richardson who has been granted a testimonial by the club this season.
Lightning who were missing Kyle Essery plus the continuing injured Jonathan Boxill, Francis Verrault-Paul and Prezmy Odrobny, gave a debut to the veteran Ashley Tait, brought in as short term cover.
Tait was involved in an explosive start to the encounter at Ice Arena Wales as he was sin binned for boarding on 30 seconds – following the hosts’ Josh Batch to the penalty benches, he had been called for interference 11 seconds earlier.
There were plenty more penalties to come in the opening ten minutes – most of them being handed to Lightning by referee Mike Hicks – Lewis Hook, Denny Kearney and Kevin Gibson warming the sin bin for the visitors while a holding the stick call was dealt to Bentivoglio.
It was Lightning who opened the scoring when Alex Forbes started the move which saw Tait make the supply for Paul Phillips to register past goalie Ben Bowns on 13mins 26secs.
The lead lasted exactly two minutes thanks to a goal from Gleason Fournier and less than two minutes later Patrick Asselin notched an unassisted marker on 17mins 14secs.
There was further drama before the break with five minute penalties for fighting being dished out to Devils’ Andrew Hotham and Carl Hudson – the former also receiving two minutes for roughing.
Devils stretched their lead to two goals within 1min 26secs of the start of the middle period when Paul Crowder found a way past Wiikman.
Pete Russell’s charges narrowed the deficit through a Ben Foster and Kevin King assisted Christian Isackson powerplay strike after 36mins 16secs – Asselin serving time for hooking at the time.
However Lightning then quickly ran into penalty trouble with Guillaume Doucet called for tripping and that gave the Welsh outfit the chance to re-establish a two goal lead going into the second break – Hotham the scorer after 37mins 44secs.
The third period saw Devils maintain their lead with Lightning unable to make anything of their only powerplay chance when Bryce Reddick was side-lined for interference just over 11 minutes from the buzzer.
Lightning’s Matt Nickerson was sent for an early shower after 52mins 57secs, receiving a 10 minute misconduct penalty for abuse of the officials.
Wiikman was pulled from the net going into the final two minutes, giving Pope his chance of an empty net goal to seal the win for Devils.
Man of the match: Carl Hudson.
NEXT HOME GAME: MK Lightning v Belfast Giants, 5.30pm Sunday 10 Sept – tickets from 01908 540020 OR mk-lightning.co.uk/tickets OR in person from Planet Ice Milton Keynes