SWINDON Wildcats felt robbed in Coventry after a contentious penalty call deep into overtime against Manchester effectively cost the Link Centre side a place in the English Premier League play-off final.
The two semi-finalists were locked at 3-3 at the end of regulation time after an impressive display from Wildcats against a Phoenix side which won the league during the regular season but, when Aku Pekkarinen was harshly sent to cool off for two minutes for hooking, the Manchester side made the most of their man advantage as Frantisek Bakrlik slammed home the winner.
Defeat was not what Cats deserved following a stunning second-half of the season and star forward Aaron Nell admitted the manner of the loss ensured it was especially hard to take for all associated with the Swindon club.
“We played really well and were incredibly unlucky with a suspect call by the referee against Aku and that put us in trouble and they scored,” Nell told the Advertiser. “That wasn’t what we deserved and the whole team is gutted by that.
“If they hadn’t given the penalty then it would have been decided very evenly in a penalty shootout, and if we’d lost one of them we would have held our hands up and accepted it.
“If it was given in the second period of a game in October then we would have accepted it but to give that in overtime of the play-offs is really hard to take. We can’t moan about it though and we just have to move on from it.”
“We were robbed and it was very disappointing because we were just as good of them, maybe even better.”
Nell, who returned to the Link Centre in the second half of the season on a two-way deal from Elite League side Sheffield, was quick to praise the travelling Wildcats fans.
“I think we had 200 fans who were just as loud as the 500 Manchester fans and hopefully we gave them something to cheer about this season,” he said.
“Manchester have been the best team in the league this season and we gave them a real scare for 60 minutes, but that’s why they won the league because they stay in games. Once that call came in overtime the odds were that they were always going to get the win with the players we’ve got.
“We were so unlucky and it’s not what we deserved.”
Saturday’s game at the Skydome started evenly with both sides having chances which tested netminders Stevie Lyle and Steve Fone, but it was Phoenix who took the lead when Andy McKinney’s shot crept past Lyle in the Cats net.
Lyle remained in the thick of the action as he denied Ben Wood and Joe Graham, before the Wildcats offence snapped into gear as Sam Smith teed up Ryan Watt to lift the puck over Fone and into the net to level the contest.
Despite further chances for both sides the scores remained locked as the opening period came to an end and, after a penalty against Bakrlik, it was Nell who fired Cats ahead as he tapped the puck past Fone.
The lead didn’t last long as Michal Psurny weaved his way around a hoard of Cats players before beating Lyle to level the scores.
Cats refused to get down after being pegged and, straight from face-off, stormed down the ice for Hoog to convert following assists from Floyd Taylor and captain Shane Moore.
Both sides were hit by a flurry of penalties as the second session ended and the third began before, with 12 minutes left, McKinney scored his second of the contest with a goal which ultimately took the tie to overtime.
The penalty on Pekkarinen brought about a four on three for Phoenix which, despite a superb save from Lyle, eventually resulted in Bakrlik’s winner which broke Wildcats hearts.
Manchester’s victory set up a final clash with Basingstoke Bison, who beat Guildford in the second semi on Saturday, with Bison running out 5-3 winners.