Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning

Two previews of our EPL opposition left to go and as they started the season late, I can totally justify doing these after the season starts…right? Ah well, either way lets crack on where we left off. Time to ride the lightning!

 

Name: Milton Keynes Lightning

Home Ice: Milton Keynes Arena (aka The Thunderdome)

Player/coach: Nick Poole

Last season’s position: 5th, playoff runners up

Top scorer: Andre Smulter, 33 goals + 37 assists = 70 points

Match night ticket price: £12 adult, £8 concessions, £5.50 child, £18.50 1 adult + 2 children, £26 2 adults+1 child, £29.50 2adults+2children

 

Goalies:

 

As we’re doing the 8th of these I am going to sign like a broken record; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and there was no reason to do that with the Lightning netminding tandem of Barry Hollyhead and Alex Mettam. Whilst finishing 5th might not have been in Nick Poole’s game plan, a solid season where Milton Keynes made the playoff final is not a bad year by any stretch of the imagination and a lot of that success was down to their strength in net.

 

Hollyhead is into his 20th season of senior hockey in Britain and this year is the 36 year old’s 8th with the Lightning and his 6th consecutive season at the Thunderdome. (Yes apparently they call the rink that, make your own jokes) Shrewsbury born, Hollyhead came up through the Telford junior system before making his senior debut for the Telford Tigers in the 1991/92 season. Stops along the way have included Blackburn Hawks, Coventry Blaze, Romford and even a couple of games for Cardiff in the first year of the Elite League before settling down in 2006/07 with the Lightning where he’s been ever since.

 

I like Barry Hollyhead. There I said it. He isn’t the best netminder in the league and at 36 his time in the EPL is likely coming to a close but he’s just that fun to watch. He was limited last season by injury, only appearing in 28 games but he still posted ok numbers of 3.33 GAA and a .897 save percentage. Many Bison fans will remember the unfortunate game last season where Hollyhead was stretchered out of the Basingstoke Arena with the Lightning in front only for the Bison to win in overtime. Hollyhead responded his next game in Basingstoke by making three brilliant saves in a MK shootout win.

Real reason why Hollyhead will survive in the EPL is because he is a clutch goalie. He may never win ladies’ man of the year, he’s as mad as a box of frogs certified mad but at this level he is a big game netminder. You only have to look at the playoffs last season if you needed reminding of that. Yes Guildford beat them in the final but Hollyhead’s heroics were a sizeable part of that.

 

With Hollyhead’s career winding down, Nick Poole has struck a goldmine with finding a partner for the “old man” in 23 year old Alex Mettam.

Mettam, a product of the Sheffield system first appeared in senior hockey in 2006/07 where he made split time between the Scimitars and the ENL Spartans. Mettam’s numbers for the 2006/07 ENL playoffs were 5 games, 0.67 GAA and .976 save %. It was no wonder after numbers like that the Guildford Flames came calling where Mettam served as backup for two seasons. Mettam saw bits of action but nothing substantial before taking up a similar role with the Lightning. Mettam has now been part of the MK set up since 2009 and backed up Hollyhead as MK went on to win the EPL title but lost to Swindon in the playoff quarter finals.

 

Mettam saw an increased amount of ice time last season, partly due to Hollyhead’s injury but also because he has the potential to be a 54 game starter in the league. The MK junior system produces good player and we’ll likely see a talented netminder appear to back Mettam up in the future (possibly David Cassidy of the MK Thunder) but for now Mettam is earning his stripes till Hollyhead calls it a day and the starting job shall be all his.

 

I rarely agree with Nick Poole on a lot of things but this I agree with him on; this is (on paper) the best 1-2 netminding punch in the EPL at the moment. Now some teams have untested netminders at this level (Matty Colclough as an example) but MK have two goalies that are starting quality right now. I expect Mettam to play more than he did last season and despite MK possibly lacking in some areas, their unquestioned depth in net can only serve them well.

 

Defence:

 

There have been some tweaks to the Lightning defensive corps, the biggest of them being the move of EPL all star Leigh Jamieson to forward. The former Coventry Blaze player can play either up front or at the back but had been a rock on the Lightning blue line since joining the club at the start of the 2008-09 season.

 

This means the the real leader at the back is now popular import defenceman Lukas Zatopek. Entering his 4th season with the Lightning, Zatopek’s point production was down on previous years last season as the Lighting finished lower than they might have expected but 38 points is not a bad return from a defenceman. He now has 133 points in 158 games in the EPL from the blueline which are numbers that some forwards would kill for in this league. As with all import blueliners in this league he will see a ton of time on the ice this season which suits MK fans fine as they really like him. To be fair any of the members of the 2009/10 EPL title winning side are generally popular with the MK faithful.

I should like Zatopek but I’m obliged not to for a simple reason; I’m still a Rostock Piranhas fan and Zatopek played for Halle. We don’t abide Saale Bulls on this blog until they turn to the side of good. Sorry Lukas.

 

A new addition to the Lightning blueline is 21 year old Tom Norton. Norton, a product of the Nottingham junior system is on a two way contract with the Panthers for the season having spent all of last season with the EIHL outfit. Norton, a standout in juniors and in the ENL with Nottingham Lions made his EIHL debut in the 2007/08 season progressing all the way to spending all of last season with the big club in Nottingham where he played 61 games scoring 1 goal and 2 assist for Team Hollywood. It’s not really a secret why Norton has dropped to the EPL and that’s for ice time. Norton will be training with the Panthers when he can as well as with the Lightning and getting a good amount of time during games. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to EPL hockey after his time in the EIHL. Not every player can make the adjustment but there seems to be very little concern about young Mr Norton. Having never seen him play I am quite looking forward to having a look at him too.

 

Back for another run with the Lightning are the young and highly rated duo of Lewis Christie and Michael Farn.

 

Durham born Farn, now 23 first entered senior hockey with the Billingham Bombers back in 2003/04. After developing in the ENL, Farn moved south to join the Swindon Wildcats where he amassed 28 points in 2 seasons with the Wiltshire side. He also caught the eye of Nick Poole who coaxed him away to join the Lightning in 2009 where he’s been ever since. His points totals have also grown and the 2010/11 season was a career year for Farn in terms of goals (6), assists (23), points (29) and penalty minutes (80) and at 23 he is slowly moving towards his prime. I’ve used the term secondary scoring a lot on this blog and Farn provides that. He’s never going to be a Mike Green style high scoring offensive defenceman but if he can chip in 20-30 points a season whilst maintaining his solid defensive play then he will be a major asset to the Lightning.

 

22 year old Christie first came to prominence when he signed with the Belfast Giants, leaving his native Scotland as an 18 year old in 2007. Christie’s ice time was limited in Belfast but the fans warmed to him and he scored his first pro goal for the Giants. After that stage of his development, Christie moved back to the mainland and joined the Lightning for 2008/09. That season he also guest appeared for the EIHL Bison for a grand total of one game and gave a good account of himself. Since then Christie’s stock has only managed to rise. I personally have a lot of time for players like Christie; a solid, hard working blue liner who will make few mistakes. For the ice time he logs, Christie only had 36 penalty minutes last season which means here is a defender who is not only solid but smart with it.

 

The last member of the Lightning blue line is Chelmsford born, MK junior product Ross Green. Green first appeared for the Lightning in a playoff game in 2008 before joining the roster on a more regular basis in 2008/09 whilst splitting time with the MK Thunder and the MK Storm under 18s side. At 19 Green is eligible to play down to the ENL but last season only made 1 appearance for the Thunder whilst playing 53 games for the Lightning whilst registering 4 points. Green for me is the 5th defenceman out of this bunch. He’ll go out, log a few minutes of even strength time, the odd appearance on the pk whilst not trying to take silly penalties.

This blue line is deceptively good I feel. It is slightly weaker without Jamieson but there’s a lot of talent still there. Zatopek isn’t as good as some defensive imports but if he can rediscover the sort of form that got him 50 points+ when MK won the league then this blueline goes from good to great.

Forwards:

Having mentioned him already, lets get Leigh Jamieson out of the way. The home town hero won the EIHL title with Belfast and Theo Fluery in 2005/06 spent a total of 5 years with the Giants and 1 year in Coventry with the Blaze before returning home to Milton Keynes in 2009/10 where he’s been a leader in the locker room ever since. With 96 points in two seasons from the blue line, you can almost understand why they moved him to forward. That said it depends how they use him. I don’t see Jamieson being used as a top line forward, more likely second line but Jamieson’s flexibility to play where required is one of his strengths. Also he can play at the point on the powerplay whilst doing defensive cover during the man advantage so theoretically MK could put out a powerplay unit with 5 forwards. I don’t think they will but having such a key part of the roster with this sort of repertoire can only help.

Two of the MK forwards who will be familiar to Bison fans are Ross Bowers and Jamie Line.

Bowers first season away from Milton Keynes was in Basingstoke during the terrible final season in the Elite League. During his time in the Lightning line up before that, Bowers had forged a reputation as a good second, mainly third line player with a bit of a scoring touch when required. He joined the Bison as a third line forward but after 38 games asked for his release and joined the Slough Jets for the remainder of the 2008/09 season till he returned to the Thunderdome. For 2010/11 Bowers dropped into the ENL with the Thunder where he was one of the league’s top scorers and averaged 2 points a game as he tallied 37 goals and 62 points last season. Now being asked to step back into the Lightning roster, Bowers will likely return to a similar role as he previously occupied and will cover injuries and suspensions on the higher lines.

21 year old Luton born Line, famous for his tenacity and his minimal height (officially Line is listed as 5’6”) broke into the EPL in 2005/06 with Bracknell Bees. In 2007/08, Line appeared in 7 EIHL games for the Bison where Basingstoke fans warmed to him the way Bracknell fans had, watching Line charge around the rink despite giving up 60 or 70lbs on some players he was facing. After a season split between the Bees and Slough, Line signed on with the Bison for the 2009/10 EPL campaign. Jamie became a fan favourite on the third line forming an impressive penalty kill unit with Andy Hemmings. After heading to MK last season initially Line was signed to the Thunder but ended up icing 38 times for the Lightning and this season is back full time. Line is likely to rotate onto the third line during the season so sadly won’t see as much ice time as much as his fans would like.

Not a former Bison but still well known to EPL hockey fans is one of the MK alternate captains for the season in Blaz Emersic. The 30 year old Slovenian has been in Britain since 2005/06 after a career in his homeland and the minor leagues in America. After time with the Nottingham Panthers, Emersic joined Slough Jets mid way through 2006/07 season where he remained until earlier this season where he and the Jets…err…parted ways shall we say in an attempt to be diplomatic. Emersic scored 39 points in 28 games with the Lightning as well as two goals in the playoffs. Emersic scored 105 points in the 2009/10 season with Slough so people did wonder if something was awry when he only scored 25 points in 27 games but as I can’t comment on it for fear I’ll be banned from the town of Slough and the rink there I’ll just ignore it and say that the Lightning have signed a very potent offensive threat. He numbers from last season with MK equated to 75 points across the season which isn’t to be sniffed at.

Joining the import ranks for the Lightning and replacing Monir Khalgoum is Slovakian forward Juraj Gracik. Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 5th round of the 2004 draft, 25 year old Gracik is a product of the Topolcany system (like Ondrej Lauko) and after being drafted played for two seasons for Tri City Americans in the WHL before returning to Slovakia where he’s remain ever since. Last season he spent time with his home town club before linking up with HK Trnava for the playoffs. A natural left winger, his points totals have never been massive but as we’ve talked about before, the Slovak leagues don’t allow for number padding. 34 points in 36 games last season with Toplocany is a good return and he was the second highest scorer on the team. 2 assists in his opening game sees him off and running for this campaign and his numbers translate well. Will be be the next Slovak Machine? That remains to be seen.

One player I have have to confess to liking (in the same way I like Stephen Wallace of the Phoenix but at the same time I hate watching him) is Matt Towalski. Entering his 7th season with the Lightning, Towalski’s numbers have dropped the last two seasons to the point where last season where he only scored 18 points compared to 34 points two seasons ago. However Towalski has a couple of attributes I really like about players I want on a team; speed to burn, not afraid to mix it up and as soon as you forget about him he will magically appear and score. See why I love and hate him? I will almost totally forget he’s even in the game then boom, he will score. Good teams need players like Matt Towalski. Not everyone can score 70 or 80 points a season but they need players to go out, bust their hump and come home with the win at the end of it.

Then there’s arguably two of the most polarising players in the whole of the EPL; Grant McPherson and Michael Wales.

Detractors of these two will come out and say that they’re cheap shot artists and “rats”. I think there is a charge these two need to answer on here. Sometimes there’s an awful lot of gum flapping without a lot anything to back it up. Then there’s the other side.

McPherson and Wales are fan favourites and more importantly they actually do contribute. Wales put up 35 points, McPherson 20 points which for 2nd/3rd line British forwards isn’t a terrible return. They will do all the dirty work in the corners, they will niggle they will agitate. Their big concern is the Milton Keynes Lightning winning hockey games and I don’t know whether you notice but MK win hockey games.

Which leaves us with the boss, Nick Poole. It possibly speaks to the financial situation with MK this season that there’s only the 4 imports rather than the five that ended the season with Poole sitting out and coaching from the bench. However as the Bison’s own evergreen coach proves, if you’re good enough then age isn’t an issue. Entering his 10th season as a Lightning player and his 8th as player/coach means Poole has earned the right to call his spots a bit. If he wants to and feels he can keep going, he will keep going. As a centre he’s more an assists man than a natural goalscorer but without that person there to dish the puck the wingers won’t score the goals. Whilst I don’t think Poole will do what Tony Hand did and put up around 100 assists, providing he stays fit he is a viable threat for EPL defences to take seriously.

Overall:

This is a tough one and a bit convoluted so bare with me.

I dislike the way MK at times. I think there’s a thin line that they sometimes walk between niggly and dirty and when I watch them certain players cross that line too often.

However at the same time I also have a lot of respect for them. Nick Poole has a habit of putting together teams that manage to maintain their core but adding pieces that they think they need to improve. The result of this is they are a real team and have a real team spirit and that’s what makes them hard to beat a lot of the time.

I look at this team and it looks about the same as last season, I don’t think there’s a massive improvement there but at the same time this team are deceptive to watch. We’re currently 2 weekends into the season; MK have played twice, beating Manchester at home then losing away to Sheffield. Thanks for throwing any and all ideas about how to predict your season right out of the window MK Lightning!

I don’t think this is a title winning Lightning side but the cup of the playoffs? On a game by game basis, I’ll never bet against them. Just like lightning itself, you never know when it will strike.

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One Comment on “Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning”

  1. Nigel Gunn says:

    That’s an extremely fair and generous appraisal from a supporter of a rival team.
    You’re to be respected for showing appreciation for other teams and players in the league.
    Well done.


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