SWINDON Wildcats were unable to lay down an early marker ahead of their Challenge Cup showdown with the Manchester Phoenix next week as they were bested at the Altrincham Ice Dome this evening.

In a dress rehearsal of Thursday night’s cup semi-final second leg, Ryan Aldridge’s men came out second best in an entertaining clash in the North West, eventually succumbing to three goals in the final period.

Despite their looming cup meeting, the two teams quickly dispelled any suggestions that they would be taking things easily, with the opening period exploding into life at breakneck speed.

Although it was end-to-end in the opening stages, clear-cut chances came at a premium, with Jan Kostal and Toms Rutkis drawing some comfortable saves from Phoenix goalie Stephen Fone whilst Stevie Lyle kept out Adam Walker and Frantisek Bakrlik at the other end.

With just over four-and-a-half minutes left of the first, the deadlock was finally broken as Swindon captain Jan Kostal plucked Fone’s weak clearance out of the air before finding the top shelf to put the visitors in front.

Jonas Hoog drew a good save from the home netminder with a ferocious slapshot late in the period but just a few moments after the restart, Manchester made their first power play of the game count, with Bakrlik blasting in an unstoppable effort.

Lyle made a sublime save to keep out James Archer whilst the Wildcats stopper was also equal to Ben Wood’s fierce drive.

At the other end, Fone knocked away Michael Stratford’s driven strike whilst Swindon’s Lyle had his pads rocked by James Neil.

But at the halfway point of the period, Tomas Kana was teed up by Aaron Nell and the Czech slammed the puck home to restore the visitors’ lead.

Goalie Lyle was soon called into action again to make a crucial stop to deny Michael Psurny whilst Fone also pulled off some heroics as he kept out Kana with a fine diving save.

The intensity of the contest didn’t let up and with just a few minutes to go before the second break, Manchester levelled things up at 2-2 as player-coach Tony Hand shifted the puck into the danger zone and it slipped just over the line, with Bobby Chamberlain claiming the final touch.

Then, early in the final period, the Phoenix took the lead for the first time as patient build-up play ended with Chamberlain setting up Robin Kovar for a simple tap-in just inches in front of the goal.

Manchester almost made it 4-2 in a flash as Hand smacked in a shot from close range but the officials drew the ire of the home crowd by chalking off the goal and penalising netminder Lyle for barging the net from its position.

Bakrlik pinged a strike off the inside of the post during the resultant power play before veteran Hand did make up for his disallowed goal, applying the finishing touch to Psurny’s cross-rink delivery.

The Phoenix were then content to see things out and maintain their psychological advantage ahead of Thursday’s cup game but they added some gloss to the scoreline with a late power play goal, Psurny cracking home after Shane Moore was sent to the sin bin.