Bison 1516 vs Pirates (Game 3)

With just another single game weekend the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison played host at the Basingstoke Arena to the travelling Hull Pirates. The home team reduced their injury list as both Alan Lack and Grant Rounding returned leaving just Alex Symonds out injured. After playing last weekend Tomas Hiadlovsky sat this one out with Jon Baston back in the Bison net starting against his former club. The Pirates were without Cameron Brownley.

The league leaders started Jon Baston in goal while their opponents chose to start their 16 year old backup, Ashley Paul Smith.

Stephen Matthews took charge of the game with Andrew Cook and Andrejs Korsaks on the lines and it was down to the man with the armbands to call the players to centre ice and drop the opening puck.

Pirates got off to a lively start as Dominic Osman got the first shot but Jon Baston comfortably deflected it away. Any nerves were soon calmed when the first goal was scored as Aaron Connolly finished off the first goal. Joe Baird sent the puck to the net and a deflection from the skipper saw the puck trickle slowly through the nervous young goaltender’s 5 hole for the opening goal at 2.20.

Tomas Karpov, who is Abbey’s favourite, and Ciaran Long combined to try and double the lead, the former tearing up the Pirates defence before he couldn’t find the back of the net but neither could Long with the rebound. It wasn’t long though before it was 2-0 when Rene Jarolin passed the puck to Declan Balmer who sent the puck in on net and a second slow motion trickle resulted in the Bison second goal as Smith believed he had the puck, but in fact didn’t have enough of it.

Alan Lack made it 3-0 at 5.39 when Ryan Sutton fed Rene Jarolin who did the hard word in getting towards the net, then skilfully waited for Lack to move into position before floating the puck to the net and selflessly allowed Lack to get the goal.

The three early goals unsettled the Pirates bench as Osman called his time-out straight after the goal. There was never any indiciation of Martins Raitums moving though and Smith returned to the goal after the 30 second interval. Towalski would have been fancying his chances for 4-0 soon after the re-start but the young netminder robbed the experienced Bison forward.

Dominic Osmon tried again to beat his former goaltender but despite his moves Baston made an easy save. Smith was growing in confidence at the other end as he extended a pad to deal with a Kurt Reynolds shot before another calm save from Jonny Baston denied Warren Tait. Smith had another save in him as he shut the door on Ryan Sutton trying the near post, good positioning by the goalie saw him tight hugging the post and no room for the shot to get through.

Miroslav Vantroba offered up the game’s first powerplay with a hooking minor at 10.02 but the visitors would find their former first choice goalie in top form. First he produced a blinding save to deny Jonathan Kirk and then nullified a wrap around chance by Bonner. With Baston backing the Bison on to a successful penalty kill Vantroba returned.

Bison continued to pressure the Pirates net and at 15.32 that paid dividend when Lack doubled up his personal tally on the night. Towalski and Thompson combined to do the set up work and Lack pounced to complete the job as he squeezed his second of the net over the goal line for 4-0.

With 3.02 left in the period Joe Greener would take a 2+10 call as he absolutely levelled Jordan Fisher in front of the benches with a slightly mis-timed hit but with the Pirate down Osman seemed intent to get to the Bison man but was denied. Matthews consulted with his other officials and the call was 2+10 meaning Joe Greener would sit out into the second period and Ryan Watt would take the 2 minute hot-seat.

Salem looked to drive the puck home on the man advantage but the Baston blocker dealt with that before Karpov attempted a shorthanded run which he executed perfectly except his shot agonisingly passing by wide. Back on the powerplay Kirk got to the net and Pasi Salonen’s tip saw the puck hit Baston and deflect out of play.

The remainder of the first period saw the Bison continue to dominate and when the first period end horn sounded the home team had justifiably earned their 4-0 lead through one of the most complete and dominant periods of hockey.

Bison were given an open net chance to start the second period as Ashley Smith followed where he thought play was going only to see Lack feed Long but Long missed the chance to bury the puck into the open target. A couple of chances against the Bison net followed as Towner was denied by Baston then Bonner’s second rebound attempt of the net saw a bit of luck fall for the home team as his shot rung the iron work but bounced out, not in.

Pirates were putting up a better account in the second period until Jonathan Kirk took down Tomas Karpov near the net, earning himself a tripping call and offering the Bison a powerplay chance. The Herd wouldn’t miss out on this one as Karpov fed Thompson, he fed it back to Declan Balmer at the blue line and he let go a shot that barely got off the ice but blistered it’s way into the back of the net fast and low at 27.18 for 5-0.

As the half way mark came up in the period Osman and his troops could have been far happier than they were by the same stage in the opening period, the single goal so far in the middle period would have beaten a lot of goalies in the league. But with Joe Greener now back from his 12 minute penalty time the Bison could still feel they were comfortably steering the game in their direction.

1.31 after half way the Bison good feelings were amplified when Long made up for his earlier error and banged home the sixth goal. Karpov set the puck to Long who skilfully waited while Smith moved to make a couple of saves even before the puck was released and while the goalie was recovering Long then fired home knowing there was nothing Smith could do in time.

Pirates would have felt unlucky not to break their deadlock soon after as Pasi Salonen got the puck to the net and a combination of Baston and Bison defence kept the cage unbreached despite various Pirates attempts and eventually the home team cleared their zone.

With 6.05 left in the middle period Stuart Mogg fed Matt Towalski and Towalski blasted home his first of the night, making it 7-0. It was a simple but effective goal that continued to force home the Bison advantage and with that strike Osman finally made the swap of goaltenders, taking off the 16 year old backup and replacing him with the import starter.

Raitams start in net wasn’t as easy as he’d have hope as just 1.08 after taking the ice he faced his first shot and conceded his first goal. Vantroba found Lack and Lack found Karpov with the Czech winding up and virtually breaking speed records as his shot was past Raitums barely before he’d moved. Coming in to the game cold it wouldn’t have been the first shot Raitums would have wanted but Karpov was not only brutal in pace but deadly in accuracy and 8-0 was on the arena scoreboard.

Despite being 8-0 down the sizeable travelling Pirates support base never gave up and neither did their team. Kirk tried his luck after crossing into the zone but fired wide and when Osman tipped a Laine shot Jon Baston was placed in the way for the save.

The second period ended with the Pirates fans singing, clapping and cheering as if they were leading the game but the huge Bison support were happy with the scoreline after 40 minutes.

As the third period started, and with the Pirates already having changed their netminder earlier in the game Dan Weller-Evans replaced Jon Baston in the Bison net with the chance to earn the shut-out.

Early on Matt Towalski was troubling Raitums but it was Joe Greener, at 43.29, who would make it one short of double figures when he slotted home from close in.

With great confidence Weller-Evans extended his pad to the first shot he received, denying Laine in the attempt before action swung back to the other end. A beautiful piece of play by Karpov saw him dance round players to the net with the puck dutifully clinging to the end of his stick before, with the game already safe, he over skated so he could selflessly try and set up Alan Lack for his hat-trick but instead the feed was intercepted and cleared away.

A couple of pucks came Weller-Evans way, Laine gaining the zone and firing over the top bar and soon after his coach would do the same thing. Then Daniel Lackey believed he’d scored the 10th of the night but straight away Matthews washed out the goal as the net had come adrift. Joe Baird then sent in a puck to the net but nobody managed to get a final tip to see it home.

Weller Evans was back in business then as Warren Tait’s shot was shouldered away and then as the Bison goaltender was on alert again Laine found himself out powered by Towalski and left puckless.

Pirates would then gift Bison the best chance for double figures when they picked up a too many men call in the neutral zone. With 5.08 left in the game the opportunity was seized as a new powerplay line of Lackey and Sutton combined to feed the puck back to Balmer who repeated one of his earlier goals blasting the puck into the back of the net and finding the same move would work equally well on both Pirates netminders.

A couple more saves were needed from the Bison backup goalie to see the game down to two minutes when Kurt Reynolds would pick up a delay of the game penalty as his clearance saw the puck clear over the glass and out of play leaving the Bison shorthanded to close out the game.

IMG_0076(2)Virtually off the face off Salem shot from the hashmarks and Weller-Evans saved, soon after Towner moved quickly to the net and brought about a save and cover. As the atmosphere grew in the arena sensing the impending large victory two impressive saves in quick succession saw out the game and the Bison won another game on home ice and by an impressive 10-0 margin.

On paper this was always a game that Bison would have hoped to win. But as Swindon have found out over the years ice hockey is played on ice, not on paper and the Pirates had already proven this season that they can be a handle.

The visitors were expecting a three game weekend before, for some outrageous reason, Bracknell didn’t travel to Hull for their Friday night game. I understand that the plan was to start Raitums Friday and Sunday and give Saturday’s start to the young back up and despite the postponement of the first of the trio of games the Pirates obviously intended to stick to the plan of splitting the Saturday and Sunday starts.

After the second goal the Pirates netminder appeared to be looking to the bench for direction, after the third he did so again and would repeat that after the 4th goal too. Now people will say that to develop you have to play and that’s true but you have to play at a level and in a team appropriate to where you game is right now.

Don’t forget early on in the season Hull gassed Baston who has gone on to prove himself an awesome netminder so I have no doubt that Ashley Smith could go on to be a promising young goaltender but he’s 16 and the Pirates are weak defensively. Facing the league’s top team with a defence that got torn apart I wonder how much benefit the young player got? As much as he’d have got making a start at Under 18 level in a lower level of hockey but in a level more attuned to his development needs?

In order to develop you have to complete your development. There are some very rare talents that might be able to make the transition to senior men’s hockey at 16 but for most under 18 is the way to go and then attempt the step to senior men’s hockey. I hope that the young lad is offered the necessary structure he needs to finish his development and to have a chance in the future at forcing a career in senior men’s hockey. He let in weak goals against the Bison put he also made some fantastic saves so there is definite potential there.

Bison came out hard and ran off the starting blocks. With a convincing lead and against a back up goaltender Doug Sheppard took the opportunity to rotate out some of the smaller amount of ice time guys into more crucial game situations. Fringe players saw powerplay time and some of the younger players got to play alongside the club’s top players. Dan Weller-Evans got a decent chunk of ice too and showed he can hold his own in the EPL.

It was good to see the injury list dwindle to just the one. Make no mistake, at this time of the season virtually every player in every team will have a knock, an ache or a strain but for the Bison the important thing is all the bodies are back on the ice and there’s just Alex Symonds to come. When you consider Symonds wasn’t in the starting squad, and was signed after the start of the season, as were Matt Towalski and Jon Baston the Bison are now a very strong squad and have both depth and options.

I thought it was a well balanced performance from the Bison given the timing of the season, the situation of the league and the opponents. I’ve worked with Doug Sheppard closely before and I know he’s not a man who likes to cause embarrassment to his opponents but in the back of his mind would have been thoughts on the league situation. His team are playing their second successive single game weekend, they’ll have two two game weekends left and they’re closing in on the biggest prize of the season. Standing in the way are still Guildford and Peterborough so Bison can’t afford to be complacent in any game. Bison showed their opponents respect, not pity. They didn’t go out to run the score up but they did what was needed to do given the context of the season.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. One more Bison win ends the Flames narrow title hopes, and two more Bison wins, irrespective of anyone else’s results clinches the league title meaning the league could be won on home ice next Sunday. A Bison win and Phantoms loss next Saturday means the league is decided away in Telford. Alternatively it could go down to the last weekend. What is for sure is that until no other team can win the league no contending team will give up. Phantoms will definitely feel they’re still in mix and the point in Swindon allows the Flames one last chance at keeping themselves in contention.

There’s at least one, if not two big weekends left in the 2015/16 EPL! If the league is won next weekend Bison can’t afford a lull the following weekend as the weekend after that is the home and away play-off quarter finals so while I’m sure Bison would like to sew up the title next weekend either way they won’t be slacking the final weekend of the regular season.