Flyers look to recover Storm damage after play-off first leg defeat

A typical scene from last night's first leg as Storm netminder Mike Clemente's skate knocks the nets from their moorings. Pic: Steve Gunn
A typical scene from last night's first leg as Storm netminder Mike Clemente's skate knocks the nets from their moorings. Pic: Steve Gunn

Fife Flyers 1 Manchester Storm 4

In a season often defined by miracle comebacks, Fife Flyers need to produce another one to salvage their play-off hopes after a 4-1 defeat to Manchester Storm on home ice in last night's quarter-final first leg.

Taking any deficit into tonight's second leg in Altrincham was never part of the script, but the need to recover from three goals down against the competition's second seeds, in their home rink that has been a fortress for them all season, looks a tall order.

Particularly as there will need to be a complete reversal from the pattern of last night's match, where after a good start, Flyers effectively flatlined against a Storm side who executed the perfect first leg game-plan - and ruffled feathers while doing it.

Storm's physical approach seemed to knock Fife off their stride, but none of that should have come as a surprise to the home side having had many similar battles with Ryan Finnerty's Braehead Clan teams over several years.

Flyers mascot Geordie Munro had poked fun at Storm goaltender Mike Clemente in the build-up to face-off by pretending to use an inflatable hammer to fix the nets into place.

However, the humour turned to infuriation as Clemente lived to reputation with his constant dislodging of the goals - the same nets that barely budged when Andy Iles was in them - and that it took the referees until the final two minutes of the game to take action was a farce.

But it was all part of the Storm game-plan to disrupt and frustrate a Fife team that never managed to get any momentum going.

The big news for Flyers was that netminder Iles and forward Evan Bloodoff both made the starting line-up, although the latter did not finish the match as the strapped-up injury that kept him out of the past six weeks finally caught up with late in the third period.

That both were willing to put their bodies at risk is a reflection of the camaraderie within the team, and something that will need to be relied upon heavily if their season is to end with a trip to Nottingham next week.

The start to the game was everything you would expect from a play-off - the skating was relentless, the hits were hard, and the atmosphere in the old barn was electrified.

Flyers were the dominant side in the opening 15 minutes, with the best chance falling to Shayne Stockton but the lanky centreman couldn't find a way past Clemente after being picked out all alone at the back post by Ricards Birzins.

The failure to capitalise on their good start - which included two powerplay chances - came back to haunt Fife when Storm took the lead on 15.09.

Iles made the first save but as the puck bounced back into the slot, where Chris Wands tried and failed to get his stick to it, former Fife forward Chris Auger skated onto it to fire the rebound into the roof of the net.

Fife had played rhythm and intensity and were unfortunate to be a goal down at the first break. They were just lacking a clinical finish to their approach play, or a fortunate bounce, while Storm were defending well, constantly getting sticks and bodies in the way.

However, the home side paid the price for a disjointed, fractured second period as Storm struck twice to take a firm grip on this tie.

Storm could even afford to lose their discipline following a thundering bodycheck from Russ Moyer, while Luke Moffat, Jay Rosehill and Dane Byer all getting involved in a fracas that saw all take penalties, and leave Fife with a full two-minute five-on-three powerplay.

The failure to capitalise on this potential turning point could be the defining moment in this tie, although Fife's cause wasn't particularly helped by constant stoppages to reattach Clemente's nets, which led to fierce cries of 'cheat' from the boisterious home crowd.

Those fans were silenced on 35.22 when Storm struck through Linden Springer on a powerplay while Birzins sat out for hooking, and the rink got even quieter, but from the 150 or so Storm fans, when the visitors struck a third in the final minute of the period.

Iles initially made a wonder save but then seemed to be trapped under bodies as Andrew McKinney pounced on the loose puck from close range.

Only a third of the way through the tie, Fife were already facing a mountain to climb, but they got the perfect start to the third period when Dan Correale netted after just 35 seconds, skating out from behind the red line to shoot over Clemente's shoulder.

That should have been the bugle call for the cavalry charge but Fife couldn't make any further cracks in Storm's defensive wall, and they were hit with another sucker punch on the 47th minute as Mike Hammond skated wide, then watched as his drop pass was missed by three back-tracking Flyers and netted by the late arriving Matt Beca.

It was a horrific goal to lose - both in terms of the manner and the timing - and Flyers never recovered from it.

They were, however, gifted a chance to reduce the deficit when Clemente was finally called for dislodging the nets in the final two minutes, and as per the rule book, a penalty shot was awarded to the home side.

Peter LeBlanc couldn't take advantage, leaving Storm to see out time before leaving the ice with their chests puffed out, particularly after a final shift where their big men flexed their muscles with little resistance.

It was not the ending on home ice that this Fife team wanted or deserved, but as they gathered in centre ice for their final goodbyes, they were given a standing ovation from the home fans in appreciation of a campaign that has delivered many more highs than lows, as well as the team's first EIHL silverware.

Those same fans will travel to Altrincham tonight more in hope than expectation.