After a long summer of early uncertainty, certainty finally returned as the puck dropped on the first of the new season’s fixtures. Challenge action started the season as the Sherfield School Basingstoke Bison and Peterborough Phantoms, both former EPL sides, battled out home and away for the Billy Glover Memorial Trophy.
Where possible over the summer Doug Sheppard had retained as much of the team as possible that had become an EPL powerhouse over the last few seasons. Rule changes had meant farewell to Tomas Hiadlovsky, Rene Jarolin, Derek Roehl and Joe Rand. Opportunities in the Elite League also meant the departure of Ciaran Long and Declan Balmer too.
Crucially though within the new NIHL rules Sheppard had managed to retain a good core of players to build the new roster around and you also have to ask what other ice hockey teams fans’ in the UK spent their Saturday night watching an Olympian in action.
Basingstoke Bison 5 Peterborough Phantoms 0
There were some early hits dished out in the game as both sides looked to play a physical opening few minutes despite the game’s challenge status. Dan Scott was providing offensive zone feeds for the Bison but the puck was just falling wide of any real scoring chances.
The Bison were put on the back foot at 4.44 when Vanya Antonov caught James White with a high stick and in doing so picked up an automatic match penalty which would later be downgraded to 5+game with the sticked player returning to action. This earned the Bison a five minute penalty kill which they did so efficiently, helped by an interference penalty to Nathan Salem making it 4 on 4 for 2 minutes of the 5 original minute penalty kill.
During the penalty kill Dean Skinns faced some quality rubber, the best of chances coming from Darius Pliskauskas but he played well, spotting the puck early and combining well with the defence to keep the sheet clean.
At 10.15 the clean sheet ended but behind Adam Long rather than Dean Skinns. After some quality chances from the Bison it was their captain who scored the first goal of the new season. Ryan Sutton and Dan Davies combined with Sutton getting the puck on net where it sat in front of Long for Aaron Connolly to finish the move and light the goal light.
Two sharp saves from Dean Skinns followed before Phantoms gave the Herd another powerplay. While they didn’t convert this one they visibly dominated the game and importantly tired their opponents out.
Back at full strength Phantoms were still frustrated as Will Weldon and Leigh Jamieson both were turned away by Skinns. Full strength though didn’t last long as Phantoms were penalised again at 18.03. With the buzzer imminent Bison missed an opportunity to clear their zone allowing a couple of close shorthanded chances but Skinns held on and froze the puck with 0.3 seconds to play.
As the puck dropped Tomas Karpov went down awkwardly and once the 0.3 seconds had elapsed the majority of players started making their way off while Bison’s trainer made his way on to help their injured star off the ice.
Fortunately Karpov took his place as the second period started and it was off to a good start for the home team when they doubled their score. A bad turn over by Greg Pick just inside his own blue line saw Aaron Connolly head to the net and slide across to the advancing Jaroslav Cesky who sold Long a dummy before shooting the puck home.
Phantoms soon got a powerplay when Paul Petts took a boarding penalty after an unfortunate hit. Phantoms failed to get going though with the 5 on 4. They got another chance soon after as Jaroslav Cesky and James Ferrara collided with the Bison man called for holding.
With three seconds left in the penalty kill Grant Rounding took a tripping penalty at 26.42. Cesky returned and played a huge role in killing off the Rounding penalty.
It was just seven seconds after Rounding returned that he raced to join the play and Karpov spotting him advancing and fed him to add the Bison third goal of the night.
After chances for Dan Davies and Tomas Karpov it was Dan Scott who blasted in the fourth of the night. Dan Davies seized on a loose puck and sent it back to Scott who wound up and fired home at 31.29.
With 5.25 left to play in the second period Paul Petts scored what would be the last of the night as he back handed the puck past Adam Long for the fifth time of the night.
The second period saw both netminders deny chances and ended with Bison starting a penalty kill as Grant Rounding picked up a delay of the game as he cleared over the glass at 39.50.
The final period of home action in the opening fixture saw coach Doug Sheppard roll his lines and allow everyone good ice time. It was a chance for the new, young members of the squad to get some valuable ice time in game situations ahead of the season proper starting next weekend.
It also saw some good saves from Long in the Phantoms net while Dean Skinns continued to deny everything the visiting team threw at him. The third period wasn’t as faced pace or intense as the opening two and as time closed out focus for the Bison turned to helping Dean Skinns complete the shut out on his return to the Herd.
The opening game of the season was a battle between two of the ex EPL teams. There have been a lot of changes over the summer with both teams dropping to the NIHL and therefore having to make adjustments to their rosters. Both had been teams that used import goalies previously but with the NIHL rules allowing for just one import on the ice at any one time that rendered the import goalie position virtually obsolete as it would teams could ice only one import through the game.
Bison recruited Dean Skinns to the Herd to take control of the netminding duties who is a former EPL starting goaltender. Phantoms gave the starting role to Adam Long who is yet to prove himself as a starting goaltender in senior hockey. I always got the impression that the Phantoms team was very much built around the solidarity that Janis Auzins gave them in net so this will be a transitional phase. It’s doubtable that there’s a single Brit goalie who’d play in the NIHL that’s of the standard Auzins was so they will never sign a like for like replacement. EPL fans can think back to the Sheffield Steeldogs when they were backstopped by Ben Bowns and how good a team he made them. Phantoms are now in a similar position having lost their rock.
They have still retained the excellent combination of Pliskauskas and Padelek but Bison controlled both of them well yesterday. It’s also difficult to perform as a forward if you are spending a lot of time back checking and playing a two way game. Long did see some time as a starter last season while Auzins was injured but it’s clear there’ll be an adjustment period for the Phantoms as Long gets used to the expectations of him and the team get used to playing a different style in front of him.
The Bison had become used to Tomas Hiadlovksy’s style of play. An aggressive goalie he’d like to meet the shooter, wasn’t afraid to poke check and certainly was happy to leave the crease. Last year’s points tally showed he was an asset to the scoring as well. However some of the current Bison line up would have been in the team last time Dean Skinns was their starting goalie so arguably the learning curve will be less.
Bison looked sharp, organised and ready. The test of the Bison and the new incarnation of the NIHL will come next weekend when teams from the former EPL and NIHL come together for the first time this season. Memories, probably for both set of teams and fans of the ill-feted “Challenge” Cup could be either re-enforced or banished.