The Basingstoke Arena filled to capacity to roar on the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison for their Sunday night home game against the Swindon Wildcats. With a win the previous evening in Telford having extinguished Flames outside hopes of winning the league all that stood between the Bison and the title was 2 points so the large Hampshire crowd knew their team were one good game away from the first league title won in Basingstoke since 1993.
The Bison were missing Alex Symonds and rested Tomas Hiadlovksy while Callum Buglass was missing from the Wildcats line-up. Officiating duties fell to Stephen Matthews as referee and Mr Cook and Mr Kosaks as linesmen.
At 5.40pm the first puck dropped with Jon Baston and Stevie Lyle getting the starts in their respective nets. Aaron Connolly got an early deflected chance but Lyle had an early glove save ready. Soon after Jan Kostal tested out Baston but a pad save deal with that. Both netminders were kept busy as Declan Balmer tried to repeat the shot that had seen him bag a hat-trick the previous weekend but no such luck was on his side this time against Lyle! Baston poked away a lose puck in front of him which fell to Ciaran Long who broke away with speed. He fed Kurt Reynolds but Lyle held on and drew the whistle.
Early indications looked to show a high intensity game lay ahead and as play continued the game didn’t disappoint. Baston was nearly trapped in his net as a crowd of players at the side of the goal nearly saw the framework toppled onto the shotstopper, Joe Baird then stepped forward to have words with Sam Bullas.
Tomas Karpov cut through the middle of the ice and tried his luck against Lyle but the Swindon man had the pads ready and kicked away the puck. Karpov would then get the puck from Dan Lackey who outpowered Malasinski but this time Karpov’s shot cleared the net for height.
As the midway point of the period came round it was clear the visitors weren’t merely there to hand the title to the Bison. They were playing a tough game and looked to be trying to force the battle between Peterborough and Basingstoke into the final weekend.
Things got better for the Wildcats when Jonas Hoog opened the scoring at 11.41. Adam Harding and Tomas Malasinksi combined with Hoog to get the puck to the net and it was Hoog who seized on a rebound to bundle in the first goal of the game.
Barely before the Wildcats had finished enjoying the celebrations of their go ahead goal they were left to wonder at some fine work by Tomas Karpov, leading to the equalising goal. Karpov took a pass from Alan Lack and powered to the net, rounding the pipework but instead of trying to squeeze the puck home he fed it to Ciaran Long who was expertly positioned to net the opening Bison goal on the night and level the game just 17 seconds after the Wildcats goal.
Karpov looked to provide a second attempt in a similar fashion to his first but this time nobody managed to take the feed but then Bison would sit the game’s first penalty. As a Wildcats player went down play continued with no raised arm from the referee but then when play was whistled down a few seconds later Alan Lack was off to the penalty box for tripping with 4.01 left in the period.
The powerplay advantage would prove useful for the visitors as they got pressure round the Bison net quickly. Hoog got to the net and shot but Baston’s blocker dealt with his shot, another save from the Bison import goaltender dealt with a Carlo Finucci shot but then Bison failed to control the puck which was soon back on the stick of Hoog who rounded two Bison before slotting the puck into the net via the 5 hole at 17.57.
Jon Baston was back in top form soon after though when Aaron Nell tested him but when the first period end buzzer sounded with it would be the home team, who had outshot their opponents 16-9 who would find themselves trailing.
With so much on offer for the winning team neither wanted to give anything less than 100%, the Bison waiting to claim the league if they won and the Wildcats determined not to be the team that conceded the league.
The second period started with a Bison powerplay after just 39 seconds when Matt Selby took down Tomas Karpov earning himself a tripping minor. No damage was done with the man advantage as the Wildcats killed off the penalty well.
Kurt Reynolds disrupted a play by Tomas Malasinski as he looked to bare down on Jon Baston and then Bison levelled the game when Alan Lack lit the goal light at 25.24. Karpov and Lack traded the puck with each other and on his second attempt Alan Lack bundled the puck past Stevie Lyle to equalise.
Chances kept coming, a string in succession for the Bison, as first Balmer was denied by Lyle, then Rene Jarolin beat Lyle but his shot frustratingly sat just outside the goal and was cleared from danger by the Wildcats, then Stuart Mogg fed Ciaran Long who fired wide. After spectating for a little while Baston had to be sharp when Bullas was all alone with a chance but a glove save ended the threat.
The intensity continued, frantically the Wildcats cleared a shot from Joe Greener that Lyle mis-handled as the puck looped into the air, Aaron Connolly then fed Rene Jarolin who’s shot was blocked by Stevie Lyle and it was then Jarolin who provided another chance for Joe Greener but he couldn’t force the puck over the line.
As the game swung across the half way point Bison took the lead thanks to an unassisted strike from Tomas Karpov. Karpov gathered speed and powered to the net and his backhand shot flew into the net for 3-2 at 33.01.
A careless turnover in the Bison defensive zone allowed Stephen Whitfield to attempt 3-3 but a sharp save from the alert Baston ended that hope.
There was extra space on the ice when Alan Lack and Neil Liddiard sat out matching roughing penalties at 34.40 but the teams were held to a single chance each while 4 on 4. Back at 5 on 5 Carlo Finucci forced a quality save from Baston but with 1.53 left in the period Jonas Hoog completed his hat-trick and in doing so levelled the game at 3-3 when he got the puck under Baston’s arm.
At the 40 minute mark both teams had to settle for a share of the honours to date as 2-1 period in favour of the team that won the shot contest 15-7 had levelled up at 3-3.
Stephen Matthews called the players to centre ice to get the third period underway and Bison looked good off the face-off but Joe Baird’s shot and Shaun Thompson’s deflection went wide. Baston ended up in the wars at the other end as Tomas Malasinski took out the Bison net and goaltender.
At 44.11 Bison were back in the lead as Ciaran Long made it 4-3. Tomas Karpov got a puck from Alan Lack and carried it into a fine position to feed the advancing Long who put the final touches on that beat Stevie Lyle.
Lyle would pull out a big save soon after as Declan Balmer sent in another blue line blast. There was a moment of tension as Matt Towalski and Toms Rutkins collided in open ice and the Wildcats player was slow to get up. The officials discussed the event and rightly so no call was made as Rutkis left the ice under his own power after some attention from the Wildcats bench staff.
Baston stood tall in a period of pressure and was aided by the defensive skills of Ciaran Long as he grabbed the puck and dropped it to clear it away quickly. Soon after Tomas Karpov was away solo with the Wildcats chasing him and Jan Kostal was left with no choice but to hook the Bison player as Karpov’s team mates were joining the play. It was the easiest call of the night for referee Matthews to make and offered the Bison a powerplay chance.
With 10.06 left to play Bison capitalised on the powerplay when Tomas Karpov, who’s still Abbey’s favourite, scored the game winning goal. With the extra space for the Bison to work in once Karpov had the puck he had the skill to skate in to position and use his positioning to screen Stevie Lyle increasing his chances of scoring. The shot was in the back of the net before Lyle had even moved and at 49.54 the Bison had a two goal lead.
Wildcats weren’t done yet as Baston denied Malasinki and quickly after it was a diving Miroslav Vantroba who denied the same player then a Baston poke check robbed Finucci.
As time ticked away the atmosphere increased to fever point in the arena, the Bison fans sensing victory, and therefore the EPL title, was getting close but still the Wildcats kept the packed arena on the edge of their seats. Another crowd formed in front of the young Bison shotstopper but he held but the puck and his nerve under intense pressure.
As the game entered its final five minutes Stevie Lyle was found in good form, first denying Ciaran Long, then Tomas Karpov, then Alan Lack and then a combination of Rene Jarolin and Aaron Connolly.
Wildcats took their time-out with 1.10 left to play, face-off in the Bison end and as the 30 seconds counted down the huge Bison support stood sensing impending victory.
Play re-started with the face-off deep in the Bison zone to the left of the net with the Wildcats netminder on the bench and an extra attacker on the ice. Bison won the face-off and Ciaran Long skated over the half way line before letting the puck go all the way down the ice to run down time but the linesmen called the play as icing despite the centre line crossing meaning the face-off went back to the Bison end.
With 1.01 left in the game Wildcats turned up the tension again when they pulled it back to a 1 goal game, Adam Harding finishing through traffic and a screen scoring low to Baston’s left.
Stevie Lyle returned for the centre ice face-off and quickly left the ice again quickly but the Wildcats couldn’t generate anything more through the final minute and a second. The 1.01 left in the game played out almost in slow motion, full of drama and stoppages but as the buzzer sounded every Bison player rushed onto the ice and the sell out crowd stood to cheer, clap and celebrate the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison winning the game and the 2015/16 English Premier Ice Hockey League.
Saturday’s win in Telford had ended the Flames hopes as the Bison were then out of reach of the Surrey side but they still needed either another Bison win or a Phantoms regulation time loss to seal the league and put themselves beyond reach. With the Phantoms winning in Bracknell the league was decided thanks to Tomas Karpov’s game winning and the Bison won the league in spectacular style rather than a midweek potential Phantoms loss handing over the title.
The league is the biggest prize in the UK game. In the NHL it’s all about the play-offs, the 82 games of the regular season can win you the President’s Trophy but the prize every NHL player wants is the Stanley Cup. The play-offs are played over best of 7 series rounds and they are tough and intense to win.
In the UK the play-offs can be scooped by winning 3 games over 2 weekends but the league is a 54 game campaign and that sorts the best team over the course of the season. Bison had frustrating losses in Hull and Bracknell but they played out exciting wins both at home and away. On home ice they lost just 3 games.
Doug Sheppard signed a very good team for the start of the season. There was great potential there but it’s how he dealt with the challenges in the season that set the Bison aside from their opponents.
Joe Rand stepped aside from playing to concentrate on his full time job, this left Sheppard the choice of whether to return himself as a player or to search for a new signing. Fortunately Milton Keynes had recently released Rene Jarolin and Sheppard swooped for the signature. Jarolin was used in a totally different way in the Bison line up and shone in a way he hadn’t the way he’d been used in Milton Keynes.
The other import problem was the injury to Tomas Hiadlovsky pre-Christmas. Again Sheppard swooped quickly to cover the absence by signing Jon Baston who had earlier been released by Hull Pirates. At 21 Baston was young and when he made his debut surprised virtually everyone. It had been a great match up for both player and team as Baston had the chance to show how good he was behind a contending team and the Bison got a hot goaltender to fill the void while Hiadlovsky was injured. Baston recorded win after win, and also put in a multi-game shut-out streak as well.
Between Hiadlovsky and Baston and indeed Dan Weller-Evans Bison lead the 2015/16 league in numbers of shut-outs recorded.
Sheppard also recruited both Alex Symonds and Matt Towalski mid season to strengthen his team and also managed injury problems well. Symonds became a long term injury, Grant Rounding didn’t last long on his return before picking up another injury, Alan Lack also missed time but arguably the biggest outskating injury problem was when Tomas Karpov had to sit out. Joe Rand covered some of the absence and Sheppard himself even stepped back on the ice for a couple of games.
The league has the right winners, the team that were most consistent over the season won. When Bison did suffer frustrating losses at Hull and Bracknell they quickly picked themselves back up and put in game winning performances. They didn’t suffer spells of poor form that the other contenders did. Phantoms and Flames both suffered runs of poor form, Telford had a poor start to the season and were playing catch up from early on. The Milton Keynes Lighting were also challenging for a long time before dropping out of the race.
After 60 minutes of hard fought hockey against Swindon, and with still one weekend and two big games to play in the 2015/16 EPL, partying and celebrating started on the ice and in the stands of the Basingstoke Arena as the Bison became league champions.