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Phoenix falling

February 20, 2010

Manchester Phoenix’s 8-2 thumping on home ice at the hands of league leaders Milton Keynes Lightning on Thursday marked a low point in the club’s short history.

Defeats have come heavier, both this season and in previous years in the Elite League, but this was the worst of the lot – for a combination of reasons.

Phoenix have beaten MK three times already this season and can have gone into the game with the expectation of winning, never mind running their opponents close. But Lightning and Phoenix’s season trajectories mark opposing fortunes. Phoenix, boasting a forward line including the best British player of all time Tomy Hand and former NHL forward Ed Courtenay, more often than not ripped the opposition’s D-men to shreds with varying degrees of ease. Defensive problems behind this super-talented front line were evident, but ultimately easy to ignore as the exciting ‘we’ll score one more than you’ policy flourished.

Meanwhile, MK started solidly but unspectacularly, form they have continued throughout the season and which looks certain to bring them the title. Guildford and Slough have made late pushes, but it is overcoming the challenge of Phoenix, which began to fall away over Christmas and has continued since, that will see them pick up the trophy.

Phoenix’s problems are well-known to the rest of the league, who have taken advantage over the last couple of months. Defeats to MK, Slough, Guildford, Peterborough. Basingstoke and, most shockingly, Romford (twice) have contributed to a sharp descent and, despite morale-boosting by ultimately futile wins away at Slough and Guildford over the last two weeks, mean Phoenix now flit between second and fourth with no hope of anything more.

Ed Courtenay continues to divide opinion

Some look at the attitude of Courtenay, which they claim is poor. His unwillingness to backcheck or chase the puck has been well-documented, but he is Phoenix’s top scorer and has got the team out of a hole on several occasions this season.

Others look at the import signing Andre Payette, who wears the assistant captain’s badge on his shirt but who until last week (when he struck 4 against a terrible Romford side) had failed to score a single goal at home.

Phoenix coach Tony Hand has work to do - Manchester Evening News

Most agree that the team’s tactical approach to the game needs assessing. Tony Hand’s sides have always had firepower – good players turning in great figures simply by virtue of his superb passing ability – and his reputation ensures good players want to play for him. Yet defensively they have always been poor – a succession of decent players does not win championships; a solid core of good ones might. Perhaps his inclusion on the ice means he cannot see the tactical side as easily; it is certainly likely that the poor camera angles in the Altrincham Ice Dome make it difficult for him – and anyone else – to see much when viewing a video of a match.

So he should retire and focus on coaching, some argue. But then the team loses one of its best players. It’s a difficult one to call, and some are even calling for him to be replaced as coach. We should know more towards the end of the season.

As MK have demonstrated (and as Sheffield Steelers did in the Elite League last year), defensive competence is crucial. Phoenix fans have known that all season and have been frustrated time and again as the opposition get more aware and prepared to face a team with undoubted attacking ability but increasingly suspect defending. Stray passes, unfinished checks and positional incompetence led to Guildford notching 6 last weekend and MK slapping the home side for 8 in the first leg of the Cup semi – the side’s biggest game of the season.

What was even more worrying than the defensive ineptitude was the flatness of the team from the start. Not only did the players look unable to do anything about MK’s thrusting attack, they looked unwilling and unbothered. A lack of ability is acceptable. A lack of effort is not. Tony Hand – one of the few players to emerge from the debacle with anything to be proud of – looked like he knew this as he skated away with a look of fury mixed with resignation.

This team might not be ready to win things yet, but there is no excuse for not making the effort to try.

Phoenix face Basingstoke Bison on Sunday in the league. They then travel to Milton Keynes for the secong leg of the cup with a 6-goal deficit to make up and return again in the league the following weekend.

These next few weeks may be meaningless in terms of results, but they will go a long way to showing the coach and the fans whether individuals within the team have the character required to be offered a contract for next season.

The only thing left for Phoenix (barring a cup second leg miracle of Lazarus proportions) is the end of the season playoffs, which remain within their grasp. The team has shown plenty of ability and willingness to come from behind at times this year and the result on Thursday may spur them into action as they look to secure the club’s first trophy success.

The next few weeks will be crucial if Phoenix is to rise again before the curtain falls on their opening English Premier League season.

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