SWINDON Wildcats booked their place at the play-off finals weekend in Coventry for the first time since 2010 after a tense weekend of ice hockey, writes George Royle.
The Wildcats had entered the play-offs as the form side after seven consecutive wins, but they promptly lost the first (home) leg of their quarter final against the Milton Keynes Lightning 3-2, putting enormous pressure on the second game 24 hours later.
However, Swindon turned the tie around with a magnificent 3-1 victory.
The Wildcats who finished fifth in the regular English Premier League season now face Manchester Phoenix – who had topped the table scoring 20 points more than Swindon – in a one-off semi final.
The victors will then play the winner of the other semi between Guildford Flame and Basingstoke Bison in the final on Sunday.
Both Swindon and Milton Keynes tried to stamp their authority on the tie during a very entertaining first period on Saturday, but somehow it ended goalless.
Early in the second frame it was the visitors who broke the deadlock through Leigh Jamieson. It took Ryan Aldridge's side just two minutes to respond as Aaron Nell was put in to score by a nice feed from Floyd Taylor.
Swedish forward Jonas Hoog then struck late in the middle period to give the home side a 2-1 lead going into the final 20 minutes.
Despite the Swindon Ice Arena crowd being in fine voice, the third period went firmly in the Lightning's favour. Janne Jokila scored with 15 minutes remaining before fellow import Stanislav Lascek gave his side victory a few minutes later.
Both teams were understandably nervy and tentative in the early stages on Sunday with so much at stake.
The Cats struggled to break down the strong Milton Keynes defence and their impressive goal tender, Stephen Wall. Cats goalie Stevie Lyle was also putting on a show at the other end as neither side managed to score through 40 minutes of action.
The reliable Aaron Nell tied the scores on aggregate with just over 10 minutes remaining and two minutes later, Henri Sandvik got on the end of a Jan Kostal pass to give Swindon the lead.
Milton Keynes then thought they had taken the game to overtime when Tom Carlon managed to get the better of Lyle to make it 2-1 on the night and 4-4 overall.
In the dying stages of the third and final period, however, Czech Kostal was brought down while barrelling in on goal and was awarded a penalty shot. He calmly and skilfully squeezed the puck past Wall to send his team through.
Two assists and a game-winning goal in the biggest game of the season shows what a great addition Kostal is to the team. And he has already been signed up for next year.