By Paul Brookman
Smith Recycling Milton Keynes Lightning stunned last year’s Elite League runners-up Belfast Giants with a 6-3 victory to announce the arrival of top flight hockey to the city in the best way possible on Sunday.
Not only did Lightning pull off what some may have considered a surprise win but they dominated the play for considerable parts of the game.
They got off to a brilliant start when Kevin Gibson fired through traffic from long range to beat goalie Stephen Murphy after only 2mins 5secs.
Then in a penalty filled first period Giants’ had Jim Vandermeer thrown out for slashing – giving the hosts a five minute powerplay from which Carl Hudson and Ben Foster assisted as captain Kevin King sent the puck into the net for a powerplay strike on 6mins 12secs.
A few seconds later Matt Nickerson gave his old team a man advantage when he went for holding but Belfast were unable to make it pay.
But Giants were given hope 57 seconds from the interval when Nickerson lost control of the puck – John Kurtz supplying Jonathan Ferland for the feed to scorer Sébastian Sylvestre. Seconds earlier goalie Miika Wiikman had pulled off a great stop from the goal scorer.
However the two goal gap was soon restored as the teams entered the second period battle when Guillaume Doucet capitalised on a Giants defensive error to go round Murphy and slot home at 21mins 9secs.
Just over three minutes later at 24mins 34secs there was an especially loud cheer when Lewis Hook – one of the few survivors of last season’s Lightning team – registered his first goal of the season, again he was able to go round Murphy ahead of shooting home. The assists went to Christian Isackson and King.
Giants were lucky not concede again in the following few minutes with Lightning piling on the pressure – King firing high and wide, Hudson trying to feed Hook without success and Denny Kearney setting up Doucet for shot which was saved.
The momentum was only broken after Ludwig Karlsson was sin binned for hooking in the 30th minute. It took all of 24 seconds for Belfast to convert with the man advantage, Spiro Goulakos supplying Great Britain stalwart Colin Shields at
But once more Lightning stretched the lead to three goals after surviving an interference call on Kearney – Hudson setting up man of the match Hook for his second of the game at 34mins 45secs.
A netminder interference call on Doucet going into the final minute of the middle session was possibly a little harsh as the MK man appeared to crash into Stephen Murphy accidentally. In any event it gave Giants the chance to narrow the gap once more with their man of the match, Shields, having the last pass to scorer Steve Saviano seven seconds before the buzzer.
Lightning made no headway after Darcy Murphy was assessed two minutes for hooking within 51 seconds of the restart.
Back at full strength Giants had a good chance from Sylvestre blocked by Wiikman ahead of Kearney being quickly closed down after he had seized on a loose puck in the neutral zone.
Belfast’s Brendon Connolly was fortunate not to have picked up a penalty when he clearly threw a punch at Karlsson in the 49th minute.
Going into the final five minutes it was Karlsson who had a fierce shot blocked by Stephen Murphy with Wiikman making a brilliant save from Darcy Murphy a minute or so later.
A pair of penalties on Blair Riley for Giants and Hudson for the hosts was added to when Ryan Martinelli joined his team mate in the sin bin for interference – giving Pete Russell’s men a late powerplay.
Lightning made the most of it following a 30 second timeout – King feeding Doucet to blast through the netminder’s legs with 2mins 7secs to ensure the home team of an historic first Elite League success.
Man of the match: Lewis Hook.