For their final home game pre-Christmas the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison would take on their toughest opponents to date at home as the Peterborough Phantoms finally arrived in December for their first visit of the season.
Bison went into the game missing Alex Symonds, Tomas Karpov and Tomas Hiadlovsky with Joe Rand making a return to the Herd and Jon Baston again guarding the pipes.
Stephen Matthews led the officiating team with James Ions and Sam Pering manning the lines and the final game before Christmas got underway just after 6.30.
Bison drove the zone early on which brought about an early powerplay as Marc Levers reacted to the pressure by clearing the puck from his zone over the glass and out of play earning a delay of the game penalty at just 20 seconds.
50 seconds into the man advantage the goal light was on behind Janis Auzins. It was a good powerplay, pressure built up thanks to the 5 on 4 and patient play. The puck was worked down close around the net and as it floated through the air Rene Jarolin swiped it into the goal. As the Phantoms protested it was played with a high stick Matthews skated over to the timekeeper’s bench to confirm the goal.
Back in Bison colours and already with an assist to his name Joe Rand powered to the net and let off a backhand shot but Auzins was quick to cover it. Lack collided with the netminder as he came in looking for the rebound and a discussion ensued between the teams. Soon after the Phantoms were on the powerplay after a big hit by Aaron Connolly was adjudged to be boarding at 3.53
Tom Norton and James Ferrara both tried their luck with the powerplay advantage but both shots sailed safely past wide. Edgars Bebris forced a glove save from Jon Baston which saw the puck deflect away out of play as the Bison captain returned to the ice.
Lack and Rounding combined to test the Phantoms but Rounding’s shot went wide of the target and this was soon followed by another Phantoms powerplay as Declan Balmer picked up at high sticks penalty at 7.13.
Ales Padelek, playing on the point on the powerplay sent a shot in but the tip from Craig Scott was mis-directed and saw the puck fly away out of play. Aaron Connolly drove to the Phantoms zone shorthanded to see his attempt denied by Auzins and as the Bison returned to full strength they could commend themselves on a second good penalty kill keeping their 1-0 lead as the half way approached in the first period but with 10 seconds before half way that changed.
At 9.50 it was Martin Susters who netted as Scott picked up a puck from the net itself and sent off a quick pass to Susters who’s shot was just too quick for the save.
Phantoms were back on the powerplay as Reynolds lost his footing and in doing so managed to take down Darius Pliskauskas earning himself a tripping penalty. Bison were off shorthanded but Ales Padelek sacrificed his body to block Ryan Watt’s passing attempts and nullify the chance.
Further “discussions” arose around the Phantoms net when Lack went chasing a play again in front of the net but at the other end Baston was holding steady when Pick shot through traffic followed by a shot from Scott which was saved but the rebound fell to Weldon who also tested the Bison shotstopper but again he made the save.
As the game developed into a battle of goaltending Miroslav Vantroba fired a boomer at Auzins followed by Baranyk completing a drop pass which failed to make it’s way past Baston. Chances came at both ends but with the hooter sounding to end the first period it was still 1-1.
Phantoms had been a little off pace early on in the game but when they came level they were right back in the game and the two title contenders were locked in a battle.
Period two saw Bison trying early with Joe Baird shooting and Ciaran Long tipping just wide then Baston saved Scott at the other end as the teams were intent on a battle of offence. Auzins saved Shaun Thompson before Darius Pliskauskas fired wide at the other end but then it was powerplay time as Craig Wallis trapped Alan Lack behind the net and earned himself a holding penalty.
Ciaran Long got the first shot of the powerplay before later on ending up with a Phantoms stick in his face which went uncalled however with 4 seconds left on the man advantage Bison were back ahead via strike from Alan Lack. Joe Rand earned his second assist of the night on his return but it was Lack with the final tip in that lit the light.
Soon after it was Marc Levers back in the penalty box with a charging call as Bison went back on the powerplay. Ciaran Long believed he had made it 3-1 and as the Bison celebrated it became apparent neither the referee nor the goal judge agreed and the scoreboard stayed at 2-1, the puck apparently hitting the roof although the whistle didn’t appear to be blown until the no goal.
Bison continued to pressure but some great work by Janis Auzins was keeping his team in the game. Shots were reigning in on the Phantoms net while the Bison net was an altogether more lonely place but Baston was making the stops he was needed to make.
At 34.22 Joe Baird picked up a hooking penalty and at 35.02 Delcan Balmer joined him with a slashing penalty. The second Bison call looked to be accompanied by a call on the Phantoms as they had seven skaters on the ice at the time of the call but as it turned out that wasn’t the way it was seen and it was just the Bison penalty putting them short by two for 1.21.
Joe Baird on his return to the ice was nearly away with a breakaway effort but ended up being forced into the corner and the chance nullified. As Balmer returned Ciaran Long tried his luck but as Auzins made the same he also decided to have a little shove at Joe Greener. Rene Jarolin set up Joe Rand but Auzins was standing firm as he did until the 40 minute buzzer saw the teams leave the ice with the score at 2-1.
It had been a great period from the Bison, one where perhaps on another day they’d have been more than a single goal ahead but against the co-title contenders it was never going to be an easy night.
Period three started pretty much with a next goal is crucial mentality and Bison started with the intention of making sure that was theirs. Ciaran Long chased the puck into the corner and sent out a pass to Rene Jarolin but his re-direction was deflected away. James Ferrara at the other end sent his first attempt of the period high over the net.
Jason Buckman and Alan Lack came together with the Phantoms player ending up on the ice. In a similar situation last weekend the Tigers player had been called for the dive with the Bison player not being penalised but this time around there was no penalty for the dive, just the tripping to Alan Lack at 44.23.
Joe Greener set about killing the penalty almost single handedly as he received the puck in the neutral zone, skating to the attacking blue line before reversing and heading back into his own defensive zone. He then skated coast to coast ending up in the bottom corner to the right of Auzins’ net before finally have the puck taken from him.
Joe Rand had a shorthanded opportunity but Janis Auzins just closed the 5 hole in time to deny his attempt as the Bison returned to 5 skaters. Pressure continued around the Phantoms goaltender as first he saved Aaron Connolly close in but Ciaran Long’s attempt saw Auzins go down and stay down. The Phantoms therapist rushed out as Auzins failed to attempt to regain his feet. He appeared in discomfort and Adam Long stood and started stretching on the bench. With Auzins down for some time it appeared he might not continue but eventually he regained his feet. It was clear he wasn’t moving freely but he decided to stay on and continue.
Soon after Joe Greener was in the penalty box for hooking and it was with the power forward sat out that Ales Padelek levelled up the game. The Phantoms sniper had a classy finish to a feed from Lloyd Gibson to make the man advantage count and tie up the game with 10.02 left to play.
At 52.33 James Ferrara got a stroke of luck to bag the game winner when Baston made the save only to see the puck trickle through him and into the goal in slow motion to make it 2-3. This quickly changed the tactics for the visitors who had been happy to play at high intensity prior to taking the lead but then went on to try and lower the intensity and pace of the game.
Bebris levelled Joe Greener and ended up with a tripping penalty as the Bison forward got up under his own steam. Play then transferred to 4 on 4 as Declan Balmer sat out a penalty. Balmer appeared to contact Levers but with no arm raised a late penalty call was then made as Balmer received a 2+10 for checking to the head.
At 4 on 4 it looked like the game had been equalised when Ciaran Long again believed he scored but again neither the goal judge nor the referee indicated the goal. Bison took their time out as James Ferrara took a high sticking call at 56.50 meaning play would now be 4 on 3.
Try as hard as they could Bison couldn’t find the equaliser and at 58.19 Phantoms took their time-out and as the teams returned, Jon Baston remained on the Bison bench. Despite controlling the play for the final 101 seconds Bison couldn’t get past Auzins who earned his team the win and ended the Bison home streak at a phenomenal 12 wins.
I had said before the game that this would be the toughest challenge the Bison would face to their home run this season. Under Slava Koulikov the Phantoms have gone from being lower mid table to genuine title contenders. Together with the Bison these two teams stand out as the obvious candidates to lift the league title so this was the perfect opportunity for both teams to sort out an advantage for the Christmas turn around.
With the Phantoms win they now sit 1 point clear at the top and with a game in hand. Milton Keynes in third are level on points with the Bison but with 4 extra games played. Swindon in fourth place are two points adrift from Bison but with 2 extra games played.
A Bison win would have put them 3 points ahead and Phantoms, catching up their game in hand on Sunday, could have been at best 1 point behind while level on games. Such was the importance of this fixture.
This fixture also showed the difference in refereeing in the EPL. Last weekend, the same referee called a dive a dive and penalised it. In a virtual carbon copy of the play this weekend there was nothing for the dive, just something for the trip. Officials are humans, there will be differences of opinions from referee to referee but to see an almost identical play called in two totally different ways by the same official was a little frustrating!
Two other frustrating moments came when Phantoms had 7 players on the ice. The referee counted the players holding his hands high but then went on to penalise just the Bison and the too many men call went unmade. Also frustrating was the lateness of the check to the head call on Declan Balmer. The contact initially appeared at worst an elbow which is a 2 minute call but it appeared there was no initial call and instead a reactionary call.
It’s disappointing that the home winning run has come to an end but 12 home wins is an impressive streak. Could the Bison have matched their road form to home form they’d be sitting clear at the top of the table but it’s highly unrealistic to expect any team to go 54 games unbeaten in the season. As a contending team you would hope to win the majority of your home games and certainly the road games against the bottom five.
With two games left to play pre Christmas, despite dropping a couple of games to lower placed teams Bison are still in a good place in the league. Tomas Hiadlovsky is set to return, Tomas Karpov will return and Alex Symonds also will return to action so there are options with Joe Rand available as injury cover, Jon Baston standing in for Hiadlovsky and Doug Sheppard is of course available to play as well.