Match-winner, match-saver: Jason Baclig did it all against Perth.

Match-winner, match-saver: Jason Baclig did it all against Perth. Photo: Jack Geraghty

It was apt that there was a penalty recorded 45 seconds into Saturday’s Melbourne Ice v Perth Thunder match at the Icehouse. Infractions would define the controversial encounter as Thunder, the AIHL’s newest team, set out to prove they would not take a backward step against the league’s back-to-back champions.  

Referee Stephen DeWitt, celebrating his 100th AIHL, was given a nightmare game to help officiate, with a slew of second period penalties delaying the game for 15 minutes and reducing both teams by four players.

Ice dominated most of the first period, several quality saves from Thunder’s import goalie Kiefer Smiley all that kept Perth from a two or three-goal deficit. It was little surprise when Ice import Matt Korthius scored four minutes from the end of the period on a rebound following a great skating and stickhandling play from Jason Baclig.

But the last two minutes of the fist stanza gave a much better indication of the drama to come – Smiley made another huge stop on a Baclig breakaway, then the Thunder put together its most penetrating attacks. Ice looked glad for the break when the hooter sounded to preserve their 1-0 lead.

The Ice were sluggish at the start of the second period, and one of their few early chances morphed into a Thunder breakaway, import Phil Ginand getting past Stu Denman to level scores at one goal apiece.

Soon the Ice were struggling, conceding penalties as they scrambled to stop rampant Perth thrusts led by forwards like star import Ken Rolph. With two men in the penalty box, playing 3 on 5, the Ice somehow held firm, led by the brilliant and untiring Baclig. Being outnumbered seemed to reboot the home team, with Baclig and Liam Webster remarkably creating scoring chances while shorthanded.

With 6 minutes left in the second period, the game was thrown into disarray. Ice goalie Stu Denman left his net to intercept a breakaway, a collision ensued, and Ice skipper Vinnie Hughes, in particular, took offence. He wasn’t taking 'no' for an answer and eventually got the fight he wanted, leading to a long delay as officials sorted out the fallout, eventually placing four men from either team in the penalty box for everything from leaving the bench to delay of game and misconduct.

Perth hit the front with 12 minutes left in the third period, Rolph’s brilliant wrist shot beating Denman high on the stickside in the corner. It took just 17 seconds for Baclig to reply, crowning his heroic game with a brilliant solo goal. 2-2 became 3-2 to the Ice with eight minutes to play when Todd Graham’s shot from the point got past the crowd in front of the net.

With the penalties finally cleared, the much-interrupted clash finally reached the heights it had promised, with the teams alternating brilliant end-to-end rushes, and Smiley defying ice attacks with his pads and glove.

After bombarding Smiley to no effect, Melbourne had to survive its own nervous moments at their end. Denman held firm for long enough that Perth was forced to replace Smiley in favour of an extra attacker. Equal league scoring leader Joey Hughes wrested possession at the defensive blue line and found the empty net to leave the final scoreline a 4-2 to the home team.

Ice seemed at their best when stung by adversity, revealing that the champs are not yet at their fluent best. The penalty-fest did them no favours, and in the end they would be relieved to have banked all three points to stay in touch with conference leaders Adelaide.

Perth had proved it would stand up for itself physically. Their performance in backing up the following day against the Melbourne Mustangs proved the new boys have the mental strength to be a force in the AIHL this season.

Thunder scored early in the game and had a 2-0 lead after a power play goal shortly thereafter. Thunder made it 3-0 five minutes into the second period, and held that advantage until five minutes into the final stanza, when the 'Stangs got on the board via Jake Ebner.

Gun Perth forward Phil Ginand closes on the net.

Gun Perth forward Phil Ginand closes on the Ice net. Photo: Jack Geraghty

But within two minutes, Thunder had converted a powerplay opportunity through gifted import Rolph, and when he scored again half-way through the period, it was 5-1 to the visitors. Scott Levitt pulled one back for the hosts in the final two minutes.

Thunder’s 5-2 win leaves them with a win, an overtime loss and a narrow loss to the champions from their first three games, a meritorious debut indeed.

The young Mustangs must regroup ahead of their second Melbourne derby clash against Ice this Thursday night. After an unlucky and gallant start to the season, featuring two overtime losses, the setback against Thunder means the Mustangs will be desperate for three points to stay in touch in the Easton Conference.

Elswehere, the highly regarded Newcastle North Stars, losers of two road games last weekend, bounced back with home rink wins against Sydney Bears and the Canberra Knights to move back up the standings to second behind the Sydney Ice Dogs in the Bauer Conference.

The league-leading Ice Dogs – who have won four out of their five matches – beat the Knights 4-1 in Canberra, to set up a three-point gap at the top of the Bauer conference. The Ice Dogs, with a game in hand, have established a handy break with their hot start to the season. The Knights have hosted only one of their six matches so far, and will be looking to re-group at home after their pair of losses at the weekend.

The other frontrunner is Easton Conference powerhouse Adelaide Adrenaline, a point ahead of Ice after recording three wins and two overtime losses from their five games. They won both games on the road to Gold Coast, squeaking home 2-1 on Saturday after out-shooting the hosts 43-24, and coming from 1-2 down at the end of the first period to win 8-4 on Sunday, captain Greg Oddy dumping in four goals.

Results
Saturday May 12
Newcastle North Stars 8 Sydney Bears 5
Canberra Knights 1 Sydney Ice Dogs 4
Melbourne Ice 4 Perth Thunder 2
Gold Coast Blue Tongues 1 Adelaide Adrenaline 2

Sunday May 13
Newcastle North Stars 6  Canberra Knights 1
Melbourne Mustangs 2 Perth Thunder 5
Gold Coast Blue Tongues 4 Adelaide Adrenaline 8

This week in Melbourne:

Thursday May 17
Melbourne Mustangs v Melbourne Ice, Icehouse Docklands, 7.30pm

Saturday May 19
Melbourne Mustangs v Gold Coast Blue Tongues, Icehouse, Docklands, 5.00pm

Sunday May 20
Melbourne Ice v Gold Coast Blue Tongues, Icehouse, Docklands, 3.30pm

Full Standings - click here

Ice got a big scare from the league's newest team, holding a one-goal advantage throughout the final period. Click for more photos

AIHL week 3

Ice got a big scare from the league's newest team, holding a one-goal advantage throughout the final period. Photo: Jack geraghty

Leading scorers - click here

Melbourne Ice - click here

Melbourne Mustangs - click here

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