For one final time in the 2015/16 season the Basingstoke Arena played host to English Premier Ice Hockey but this was different, this was play-off hockey. A place at Coventry was on the line, one team extending their season and one ending it. A trip to Deeside the previous evening had earned the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison a goal lead thanks to a 2-1 win over the Manchester Phoenix. That game had shown character as the Phoenix scored first only to see Bison equalise virtually immediately and then consolidate to take the lead.
The hard work done the previous night had to be finished off on home ice if the Bison were to book a semi-final place against the winner of the Telford vs Milton Keynes. Captain Aaron Connolly was missing for the Bison and Jon Baston was rested with Tomas Hiadlovsky getting the start in goal. Manchester Phoenix were missing Ben Wood and Martin Baranek. Officials were Andrew Miller with Justin Lalonde and Kevin Ward.
At just after 6pm the puck dropped at centre ice and straight off the face-off Bison started attacking. Early chances came as Rene Jarolin and Joe Greener gathered at the net forcing Stephen Fone to start sharply. The Phoenix netminder saved the first chance but his defence couldn’t clear the zone so with two Bison hovering on the boundary of his crease he froze the second save to draw a whistle.
Bison continued to enjoy early dominance and pressure in the zone kept building. After 100 seconds Alan Lack put the puck on net but just out of reach of the charging Ciaran Long. 45 seconds later Ciaran Long centred the puck from the corner for Ryan Watt but a Phoenix defender just got enough on it to ensure no connection with Watt and then the defence cleared the puck away. The puck wasn’t out the zone long before Grant Rounding had a couple of chances.
Soon after it was danger time again for the Phoenix, this time as Rene Jarolin carried the puck round the back of the net, drawing Fone to the right of his goal before slotting the puck across the zone to Joe Greener, pinching in by the hash marks, who let go a one timer but Fone slid back across the ice to make the save in time.
Phoenix finally got to trouble the Bison when Luke Boothroyd set free Robin Kovar but as Kovar carried the puck down the wing looking for support he was left alone and ended up turning the puck over in the corner. Bison’s quick snap to offence was caught off-side.
With 8.55 left to play in the period Tomas Hiadlovsky made the biggest save of the period so far after Satek dispossessed Tomas Karpov the Bison shot stopper was forced into a sharp kick save to keep it scoreless. At the other end of the same minute Joe Greener outmuscled the Phoenix to get the puck to the net but again Fone denied him.
Shaun Thompson fed Matt Towalski as Towalski came zooming in towards the net his shot went wide and then the player took an awkward collision with the boards, forcing a whistle while he regained his feet. It was still the home team dominating play upon the re-start as the Phoenix were forced to ice the puck to get a break. Stephen Fone made a save but the puck trickled free from him and it was all the defence could do to get there first and fire the puck from the crease down the ice to nullify immediate danger.
The goal that was threatening to come eventually did come when Ciaran Long and Rene Jarolin combined. It was Long who worked hard to control the puck and take it from the corner, getting a shot that Fone saved but Jarolin did enough with the rebound to make it 1-0 at 14.39 and increase the aggregate lead to 2.
Bison didn’t relent, Greener and Karpov took the offence back to the Phoenix goaltender but he saved their attempts. Karpov was back trying to double the score at 18.54 with a wrap around chance but Fone just got enough to send it forwards rather than backwards into the net. The period ended with a bit of pressure created around Hiadlovsky but when the buzzer sounded Doug Sheppard would have been the happier of the two coaches as his team ended the period 1-0 up and on the better end of the 14-4 shots on goal count.
The start to the second period couldn’t have gone any better for the home team as Tomas Karpov doubled up the score just 25 seconds in from the re-start. Phoenix failed to keep an eye on Karpov and when he’s got space he can often score and on this occasion he did making it 2-0 and increasing the mountain the Phoenix had to climb.
Phoenix looked to up their intensity and forced a save from Hiadlovsky and the short spell of pressure gave its reward at 21.44 when Declan Balmer picked up a boarding penalty behind his goal giving the visitors their first advantage of the night. With the powerplay in their favour a one timer from the Phoenix forced a Hiadlovsky save and then a second shot saw the net off behind the goaltender and a whistle to stop the play. James Archer had a couple of tips in front that were unsuccessful then Balmer returned so 5 on 5 was back.
Jacob Corson-Heron fed Michal Satek who shot on Hiadlovksy and Stuart Mogg came in to clear the puck from the goal mouth. A roughing minor to Matt Towalski at 24.21 put the Phoenix back on the powerplay.
This powerplay had more chances, first a Neil drive from the blue line was saved, and then Archer’s attempt with the rebound also failed to beat the goalie. Bison cleared the zone, Phoenix regained the puck as the home team changed lines but after carrying it in to the zone it was passed straight to Miroslav Vantroba who immediately sent it back to the neutral zone. Mark Thomas finished the man advantage with a chance but this powerplay also ended with no scoring from the Phoenix.
Phoenix must have been wondering when their break would come as the Bison were soaking up everything they were trying at 5 on 5. Finally the visitors got a chance to get some pressure in the zone and Kovar was at the side of the net looking to squeeze the puck past Hiadlovsky but there was just no room left for him.
At 29.13 Stuart Mogg let lose a blue line boomer which Fone saved and the rebound fell helpfully for the Phoenix who advanced quickly but Satek was saved by Hiadlovsky.
Just past the half way mark Grant Rounding had a chance and there followed another period of Bison ascendancy. Declan Balmer dived to block a Gron slapshot and the puck fell to the Bison again. At 32.10 Mogg sent the puck in from the blue line, Jarolin tipped it in front but Fone made the save. Soon after Long banked the puck off the boards for Tomas Karpov who sped through the neutral zone but got bogged down in traffic by the far blue line and lost the puck.
Manchester Phoenix finally got themselves into the game at 34.04 when Gron’s shot was saved by Hiadlovsky but Satek was pinching in and found the puck nicely in the slot. He got enough on it for 2-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. The goal spurred on the Phoenix, Watt crashed into the net clearing the crease then Robin Kovar had a chance but his shot made for an easy save for the Bison goaltender as the puck crashed into his chest pad.
The Phoenix come back was ended with 3.26 left in period 2 when Alan Lack, Shaun Thompson and Matt Towalski combined. Phoenix allowed too much freedom in their zone and Bison put the play together with Towalski scoring at 36.34.
There was a bit of luck soon after when Declan Balmer’s cross ice pass to Joe Baird caught Baird’s skate and deflected dangerously close to the net but nobody could get to the loose puck. With 1.24 left in the period Karpov rounded the net and fed the puck to Long but quickly it was James Archer feeding Mark Thomas who shot but a deflected save from Hiadlovsky ended that play.
Neil looked to find Thomas but the puck didn’t find the target then the second period ended with more pressure round the Phoenix net but the buzzer sounding still saw the Bison ahead 3-1 on the night and 5-2 on aggregate.
With Bison clearly in the ascendancy following the opening two periods they started the third generating even more pressure. Ryan Watt came pinching in forcing a save from Steve Fone and Joe Greener’s effort with the rebound caught the netminder on the helmet forcing a stop in play. 2 minutes into the final period Grant Rounding was denied as all the Phoenix were lined in front of the goal to support Fone.
Shortly after Kovar collided with Hiadlovsky taking down the Bison goaltender, a quick transition saw Bison drawing a stick save from Fone then play headed straight back to the home goal where Hiadlovsky made a save and froze the puck. After the whistle Hiadlovsky had time to make his feelings clear on being taken out earlier in the play.
Phoenix were enjoying a good spell when Thomas fed Kovar but he went down trying to shoot then Thomas backhand shot was saved by Hiadlovsky. Any momentum Phoenix were striving for was halted at 45.50 as James Neil took a hooking penalty, holding back Shaun Thompson as he raced towards the net, and Phoenix took their timeout.
The Bison powerplay failed to get started this time around other than a chance for Tomas Karpov and Phoenix killed off the powerplay. The visitors continued to look to fight back into the game and at 48.41 scored their second goal. Robin Kovar danced down the ice and laid off the pass which was jammed in by Gareth O’Flaherty for 3-2 on the night. It’s not the prettiest goal that the Phoenix had ever scored but they all count and that drew the aggregate score back to 5-3.
Just 1.01 later the Bison came straight back at the Phoenix. Rene Jarolin sent off Grant Rounding who loomed on the goal before letting lose a shot from the slot high over Fone’s left shoulder for 4-2. Rounding’s pin-point accurate strike pretty much ended the Phoenix hopes of advancing to Coventry and the timing of the goal so quick after Phoenix had pulled back showed one of the reasons Bison had had such a successful season so far.
4-2 didn’t seem enough for the Bison who forced a save straight off the re-start from Fone, Long saw the puck lose but couldn’t quite get the right angle on his shot and it stayed at 4-2.
It wasn’t 4-2 for long as with 7.18 left to play Bison netted their final goal of the season on home ice. With Phoenix working hard in their attacking zone they lost control of the puck and Ciaran Long and Alan Lack headed down the ice on an odd man rush. All the Phoenix had gone in the zone allowing the two Bison to head down the ice with just one defenceman ahead of them and the rest of the team pursuing. Long held the puck, mimicking to shoot but eventually let loose and Fone got just enough with his glove to make the save but had nothing left for Alan Lack who was at the left post ready to stuff in the rebound.
Bison still clocked up the chances, at 56.50 Shaun Thompson tipped a Grant Rounding shot and with 2.53 left Rounding tried on his own but Fone saved both.
At 57.53 Kurt Reynolds took a tripping penalty but the penalty kill was made to look easy by the home team. At one point Rene Jarolin skated round the ice with the puck dutifully on his stick just taking up time. Reynolds returned and 7 seconds later the final buzzer of the season sounded signalling a 5-2 win for the Bison meaning a 7-3 win on aggregate and a semi-final encounter at Coventry the following weekend against Milton Keynes Lightning.
The win ended a near perfect home season. With just 3 losses on home ice all season Bison had won the League, secured a semi-final in the Premier Cup and now booked a place in the Play-off semi-final extending their season into the final weekend.
Basingstoke: Lack 1+2; Jarolin 1+1; Long 0+2; Towalski, Rounding, Karpov 1+0; Balmer, Thompson 0+1. Net: Hiadlovsky (60.00) 20/2
Manchester: O’Flaherty, Satek 1+0; Neil, Archer, Gron, Kovar 0+1. Net: Fone (60.00) 40/5
Period Scores: 1-0/2-1/2-1
Shots On Goal: 40-20
Penalty Minutes: 6-2
Referee: A Miller. Linesmen: J Lalonde & K Ward
The game brought to an end a season the Phoenix would want to forget. Following their departure from Altrincham last summer they ended up ostracised to Deeside. They ended up parting company with Red Hockey and the last four months of the season were completed thanks to fan donations, virtual brick sales and share sales. The future for the Phoenix still looks uncertain as even if they return to Manchester there’s already a new team in town with the Storm having enjoyed a successful first season in terms of interest and attendance. They’ll no longer be the only team in town and with their fan base having dwindled due to the move it’ll be a tough ask to either draw them back from the Storm or indeed draw back those lost to the sport.
The game also signalled the end of a very successful home season for the Bison. There’s been some stumbles on the road including losses against both Bracknell and Hull but the season has enjoyed amazing home form. The Herd have made the Basingstoke Arena a fortress this season, losing only 3 of their 27 home league games.
The play-off ¼ final weekend also summed up a strength of the Bison and a turn around from last season. On Saturday night at Deeside the Phoenix scored the opening goal but it took just 24 seconds for Bison to equalise. On Sunday night when Phoenix scored Bison scored just 61 seconds later. That’s a turn around from last season as on numerous occasions last year Bison scored and carried momentum only to see a goal conceded at the other end. The change to an import netminder this season stopped that and the momentum Bison lost in 14/15 they gained in 15/16.
The togetherness of the team is also another great strength of the Herd. The players enjoy each others success as well as their team success. Each player knows their part in the team, there’s no oversized egos and the unit clicks together. It’s well captained and well coached.
If there’s a downside to the season so far, and it’s hard to find one when the season has been so successful, it’s the horrendous injury to Aaron Connolly. In a nothing game at the end of the season the Bison captain suffered a horrible injury that now sees him with a fractured skull which it looks like will need surgery to be plated. Connolly obviously won’t play again this season and we can only hope that when surgery is complete a very promising hockey career isn’t cut short by a careless hit in a nothing game. Connolly is a good player, a good captain and a good guy and without doubt has a bright future ahead of him.
Bison will now go on to face Milton Keynes Lightning in the Play-off Semi-Final while Peterborough and Guildford will play each other.