Standing in the Way – Milton Keynes Lightning 2014/15Posted: 22/08/2014
Milton Keynes Lightning
Home rink: Thunderdome 2.0 (coming October 2014)
2013/14 league position: 4th, EPL Cup finalists
Team preview by Mike Walls (aka MKPimmy), moderator of MKIH Forums
Last Season in a Nutshell:
Finishing fourth, making a cup final and missing out on a play-off semi-final by a last minute penalty shot will go down as a successful season considering the lack of training time and playing the season away from Milton Keynes. Coventry was a great host for last season and the club did well to get through the season and retain the entire squad without having to release players, in fact we were able to bring in Paul Gore as injury cover for Lewis Christie. Surviving and being competitive was the agenda of last term, and all involved should be proud of the efforts to keep the Lightning going last season.
Keeping the Brit core at MKL was vital, however the return of top scorer, Stanislav Lascek, is massive for MKL. He topped the scoring charts for the team with 41 goals and 35 assists from 47 games. His goal scoring and positioning was vital for Lightning last term and, had he not been injured mid-way through the season, he would have been higher up the scoring charts. He is first player to play for the Lightning, since Gary Clarke, that looks like scoring every time he has a sight at the goal. Having got used to the EPL and with regular training back at MK, I expect the Slovakian to be the top scoring player on the roster this season.
The new boy:
There have not been many new players joining MKL but all three have strengthened the team. Lewis Hook is a great British prospect and Milan Kostourek will add to the offence and ease the pressure that was on Lascek, Tom Carlon and Leigh Jamieson. The key new signing is defenceman, Petr Horava, who replaces fan-favourite Lukas Zatopek. Horava has some big skates to fill, and he looks a solid stay-at home defenceman which should allow Michael Farn to carry on his point scoring form from last season. Lightning have always signed decent import D’men at this level (Newman, Carpenter, Kieras, Zatopek) and the success this year may well be down to how Horava performs.
How we’ll do:
With MKL due to return to home ice on October 18th, expectation is high for an improvement on last season. On-ice the team looks good and should be a match for anyone in the league, whether they are at the level of Telford or Guildford remains to be seen. The founding of the hockey academy and stronger links with NIHL MK Thunder should see bigger benches and more youngsters getting ice time. I think there is a shout for MK to go one step further in the cup and finally lift that elusive EPL cup for the first time! The big challenge for MK is off-ice, we need to get the fanbase returning to games after a year away. The refurbished rink is there, it is now up to the Lightning to get the place full, get the atmosphere as loud as it can be and offer a better match night experience in the updated facilities to increase average attendance and attract more local businesses to sponsor the team.
The BOTW take
The Milton Keynes Lightning is a team I always have a lot of time for. To say I like them might be stretching it but I do have a lot of respect for the organisation and the way it’s run. As Mike alludes to above, last season was a trying one for them though not without its high points. The Skydome was an adequate home and what was a competitive and fun MKL side to watch came close to the EPL Cup (blame Andy Melachrino) and close to a place at the final 4. Had the Lightning made the playoff weekend, it would have provided an interesting variable for the EPL playoffs; a team at the weekend with the closest thing to home ice advantage.
Given the performances of last season, that Nick Poole has chosen to keep most of the squad together is no real surprise. Whilst a wise friend of mine once said that “you never have two number 1 goalies, only two number 2s”, the netminding for MK is arguably a mix of a dark horse and a trump card all in one. The combination of Stephen Wall and Jordan Hedley is one where literally they have two netminders who can win you games in the EPL but the combination never seems to get the praise it arguably deserves. This has been a tried and tested path in MK; the long time tandem of Barry Hollyhead and Alex Mettam saw the former bleed the later through to the point where Mettam is now an established EPL starting netminder. There’s an argument that Hedley could surpass that and make his way to the EIHL or even higher and it’s a possibility that’s for sure.
In some ways it should be really easy to write this preview because as Mike says, there are 3 new regular players (though I’m sure we’ll see players playing up from the MK Thunder and juniors) and that’s it. However these 3 players will be in key roles so in some ways the season hinges on their performances. Lewis Hook is a fine talent who under a coach like Poole, who has a history for giving young players a chance to flourish (hi, Jordan Cownie) and could easily make himself a top 6 and special teams necessity. Petr Horava, a veteran of the Czech top and second tiers is in his prime years at 29 and will need to be that anchor at the back as well as contribute with the scoring. Milan Kostourek has to fill the void left by the talented Janne Jokila though his stats in Poland last season show he should be more than up to the job.
The top end names that return for MK are players that could walk into other teams; Jamieson, Carr, Farn, Christie, Carlon, Lascek as well as the supporting cast of depth players will make the Lightning a formidable opponent. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Congratulations also should go to Grant McPherson as he enters his 9th season with the club, an ever present and Lightning to the core, he will no doubt be wanting to defend his title as arguably the best agitator in the league.
Given that so many of the squad from last season are returning, it feels somewhat ironic to be calling 2014/15 a season of renewal for Milton Keynes but that’s what it is. The Lightning have been forging better links with their NIHL and junior sides with the formation of the new academy to develop players, established fan favourites like Jokila and especially Lukas Zatopek have been replaced and of course, the Thunderdome is close to being fully refurbished. The changes of and on the ice will make this campaign at MK worth paying attention to for many reasons. As to how they do on the ice the Lightning are a team, like the Bison, who are more than the sum of their parts. Whether the final result is a league title challenge remains to be seen but they will challenge at the top end rather than the bottom. Whatever happens, Nick Poole’s side will deliver entertaining hockey wherever they play and the MKL Barmy Army will be there shouting to the rafters. I wish all connected with the Lightning the very best in the build up to their return home.