Swindon Wildcats and visitors Peterborough Phantoms blanked each other out in a 3-3 draw in the first leg of the Autumn Trophy semi-final at The Better Link Centre on Thursday night.
With a smaller crowd than normally supports the home side on a Saturday evening, Aaron Nell’s side took to the ice looking to gain a lead of some sort before heading to Planet Ice, Peterborough a week later, boosted by the appearance of Cardiff Devils duel-signed Toms Rutkis, though robbed of the services of Jordan Kelsall, the exciting young British forward having fractured the bottom of his left tibia when training with Elite League side Nottingham Panthers on Wednesday evening.
The opening first five minutes were unsurprisingly frantic, with both teams sizing each other up before Swindon created the first clear chance, Rutkis shot rebounding off of the Phantoms pipes on 6 minutes.
The dangerous Nathan Salem fired a warning shot at Cats netminder Remy Marr a minute later before Referee Matthews called the first penalty of the night, a tripping penalty against Swindon import Max Birbraer.
From the ensuing powerplay, Peterborough grabbed the lead on 11:07, Salem striking home after finding himself in space on the left side.
With the visitors now the more offensive-minded, former Wildcats Owen Griffiths blasted straight at Marr when clear down the right wing.
Swindon pulled themselves back into the two-legged contest on 18 minutes, in-form Floyd Taylor appeared to have skated too far around the back of the Phantoms goal but cut back in and smashed the puck home from an acute angle for a brilliant wrap-around equaliser.
With just 21 seconds to go before the first interval, Peterborough’s Latvian import Darius Pliskauskas silenced the home fans when, having found himself in space on the left, sent an unstoppable shot past Marr to make it 1-2.
Wildcats started the second period on the front foot, Edgars Bebris forcing netminder Euan King into two saves in close succession before combining with Birbraer for a one-two, King again blocking out.
Against the run of play, Phantoms increased their lead on 24 minutes when after a goalmouth scramble, Griffiths was on hand to tap home close-range.
Undeterred, the Wildcats came back at their opponents and soon replied, Phil Hill broke left side and pinged in a perfect pass to Player/Coach Nell to gleefully smash home back post.
Swindon’s play was becoming more physical, hassling the visitors into errors and after the Phantoms had a goal ruled out for interference on Marr, they drew level on the powerplay on 37:07, Chris Jones smacking home after some quick inter-passing between his team mates found him unmarked on the back stick.
The final period saw Swindon again taking the game to their opponents, Glen Johnson spurning a close-range opportunity, whilst Phantoms forward James Ferrara warmed Marr’s gloves down the other end.
Rutkis showed his flair on 45 minutes, breaking free down the middle and weaving through several weak challenges only for King to repel.
Marr then came to his roster’s rescue gloving the puck from Salem’s rocket-shot before Leigh Jamieson, avoiding Stevie Whitfield’s desperate lunging tackle, rattled the Cats crossbar.
With one minute remaining on the clock, Nell then called a timeout, hoping to conjure up one final scoring chance, which was promptly followed by his counterpart, Phantoms Head Coach Slava Koulikov, repeating the process before the final buzzer sounded.
Commenting post-match, Coach Nell remained positive, “If we lose next week it was a missed opportunity tonight, if we win next week then it’s not.
“It’s a classic cliché, but it’s a 120 minute hockey game, we’re half way through and we haven’t won at Peterborough in a long time so we’re going to have to do that if we want to qualify.
“In the first period we were great, to bounce back like we did in the second was good, having been 1-3 down.
“We’ve got to go there now next Thursday night and get a big result!”
The Wildcats now turn their attention to the weekend when they take on the London Raiders in the National Cup, with the first game on Saturday at The Link (face-off 6.15pm) followed by the second leg at the Lee Valley Ice Rink on Sunday (face-off 5.30 pm)