For as long as I can remember summers have meant press releases announcing departing players and incoming players, website updates, video highlights packages etc. Even last summer after the demise of the Jets as a top level ice hockey team my time was busy with Legends game preparations and then the DVDs. The summer of 2015 for me was the first that entailed no ice hockey work at all.
The summer has been busy however. In June I started my new radio show on Time 106.6, on air Monday to Friday from 6-10. It means 4.30am alarm calls 5 days a week but it’s an awesome thing to do first thing in the morning and real privilege to be there “waking people up” in the mornings.
In July I became a Father for the first time to little Will. Being half me he will always be a bit of a challenge I’m sure and has given me an insight into how hard my parents must have had to work to raise me!
Finally it was time to get back to hockey. Back to rink side to watch the game I’ve loved for 23 years. Opening fixture was a challenge game, midweek, at home against the Milton Keynes Lightning. Two former Jets coaches at the helm of the two Planet Ice sides in a home and away series.
The summer had seen big changes for both teams, Player/Coach Doug Sheppard relegating himself to a 5th import / Coach position with the Bison, allowing the signing of import goaltender Tomas Hiadlovsky among other changes. At the Lightning it was a completely new coach with a remodelled MKL team including the outgoing Bison shot stopper Dean Skinns.
Dean Skinns led out the Lightning ahead of his first start while Dan Weller-Evans led out the Bison but didn’t actually take to the ice. The new look teams were announced out by MC/DJ Daren Bavister, the scene was set and Stephen Matthews called the players to centre ice to start the pre-season.
The home team were almost on the board early after Dean Skinns failed to handle a slightly tricky bouncing puck but fortune favoured him as the puck went just wide. At the other end Tomas Hiadlovsky showed his speed by racing out to smother a puck heading in his direction causing a verbal exchange between the average height Joe Baird and generously tall Leigh Jamieson.
First powerplay chance of the night went to the Bison as Tahtinen picked up a boarding penalty for a dangerous challenge on Lack just 150 seconds in. Ryan Watt came closest to taking advantage of the powerplay but Skinns had the save in hand.
Around spells of Hiadlovsky showing skating, stick, glove and pad speed Bison were down and around Skinns. Watt was left still waiting for his elusive first goal for the Bison since his return mid last season after Tomas Karpov set him free with some fine individual play but Skinns quick glove flash did enough to deny the shot even if the shot stopper wasn’t entirely sure.
The first squabble of the season took place when Glenn Billing took it upon himself to spray the Bison goalie but the sorting out was left to the adults as Joe Greener and Grant McPherson dropped the gloves but intervention from the officials ensured nothing meaningful actually happened between the two before both started serving roughing minors.
Ciaran Long and Grant McPherson then came together but both were down before a scuffle really broke out, even so Referee Matthews had them sit for double fighting minors. A subsequent delay of the game penalty to Aaron Connolly saw the Bison shorthanded and a top drawer save from Hiadlovsky denied Hook at the back post before shorthanded chances to both Greener and Rand went wide and with Connolly ending his penalty the first period came to a close at 0-0.
Period 2 started with another chance from Hook which looped over the goal before a slight anti-climax as the teams waited for the ice to dry before recommencing the game.
Chamberlain was quicker than Mogg but denied by Hiadlovsky before both netminders were making saves in front of their respective nets but at 26.04 the game scoring started when Stuart Mogg finished after Tomas Karpov got the puck back to him. Mogg’s ensuing wrist shot was the game opener.
Hook continued to look dangerous with yet another chance denied by Bison’s new netminder but at 37.03 Leigh Jamieson finished from Jarolin. A clever bit of line matching from Russell got his top line out, beating the Bison doing the same and Jamieson finally beat the pads.
It took just 20 seconds for the Bison to be back ahead when JJ Pitchley, on debut for the Herd, set up Ciaran Long for a finish past Skinns and it was 2-1.
The second period concluded with the Herd still ahead and it had been a good period. Both teams showed speed, skill and physicality. The goaltenders had looked pretty good too.
Period three saw the game start being anybody’s. The game was open, the single goal lead hadn’t, as yet, sealed the win.
2.08 was all it took for 2-2 when Jamieson’s shot was deflected by Hook in front and Hiadlovsky was left little opportunity to make the stop. Again Bison were quick to come back and finally Ryan Watt got the monkey off his back as his first goal for Bison in this spell was a beauty. It showed what we all knew he could do and what those of us that watched him week in, week out knew he would again do. Karpov’s wrap around shot deflected from Skinns pad towards Watt who turned and blasted the puck into the net with the confidence of a man coming off a 100 point season! Given his difficult last season it was good to see and while it’s not an official goal in terms of stats it’s a goal that will hopefully set him free from the drought and give him back the confidence to play the game he knows the way he knows.
The game wasn’t done yet and there was still plenty of scoring to do. With 9.08 left to play Hook and Chamberlain set off on a 2 on 1 and the former completed the move with an easy rebound chance. However, the pattern continued with the Bison again nullifying the hard work of Russell’s men with Rand making it 4-3 with 7.40 left. Baird and Mogg passed the puck before setting Rand up to complete the move.
Hook’s hat-trick was next to require the attention of the scorer, his third goal a quality shot deserving of the red light it lit up after some careless play allowed the Lightning to create the opportunity and at 54.49 it was 4-4.
Kurt Reynolds was on hand to work the puck away after the goaltender was caught out of position and despite the teams trading penalties it came down to the final minute still level. 13 seconds in to the minute Joe Rand scored the game winning goal, his second of the night and Peter Russell called the MKL time-out.
Skinns remained on the bench for the final 47 seconds but the man advantage that created did little for either team. Lightning, despite some possession in the zone, just couldn’t get and maintain control but equally Bison couldn’t get enough control to hit the target of the open net and with nothing further to trouble the scorers the buzzer sounded at 5-4.
For a challenge game it had been a good game. Often these are just experiments, not taken seriously by the players. This had skill, it had good coaching and it had physicality. Players put themselves on the line and it was a great night’s entertainment.
For the Bison there were good points. In his first game Hiadlovsky showed great promise. He made some good saves and the goals that beat him had to be good. Watt cleared the goal hoodoo against him, JJ Pitchley looked good permanently back in an EPL team, Joe Rand netted twice, Stuart Mogg bagged 1+2. The home team put in a solid performance all over the ice and move on to the next challenge match when the host the newly modelled Flames this Saturday.
For the Lightning there had been quite a few big changes over the summer since Peter Russell took control but his team looked well drilled, fit and hungry for the challenge. Russell is an experienced coach, some of his team have worked with him before but they’ll all be out to impress their new coach.