Another Saturday and another Jets fan on tour trip with the destination confirmed as Basingstoke where the Bison would take on the Manchester Phoenix. My pre-game prediction for the day was a 3-2 win for the Bison in a close battle.
Before we get to the game let’s talk about the journey. The journey to Basingstoke is one I am familiar with having DJ’d at the rink for a few years and making that trip every Friday in addition to hockey trips with the Jets before they became obsolete to requirements as an EPL team. It’s a smooth journey, the M4, A33, a couple of roundabouts and you’re there. I fully appreciate that from time to time road works need to be carried out and right now it is the turn of the M4 from about 1 mile past junction 8/9 to 1 mile short of junction 11. Miles of cones, speed restrictions and not a single workman spotted on either the going or return leg of the journey. Cones and restrictions to protect a workforce that aren’t there and aren’t working!! Ok, the workers can’t work 24/7 and that’s appreciated too but what really bugs me is heading Westbound there’s miles of speed restrictions before even getting to the roadwork area? Maybe someone from the Highway’s Agency could explain the logic behind that?
Anyway, we arrived at the rink in good time for the game, just as the warm-up was ending giving time to chat to the friendly home fans who have been nothing but welcoming since we were left with no team of our own to support.
Great news for the Bison tonight to start the game was that Aaron Connolly was back from his suspension and Ciaran Long was back from his injury. This added to Michael Wales back at full fitness gives the Bison a real boost but the downside to the returnees was the Matt Selby was missing from the line-up, carrying an injury sustained in the Bees game last Sunday.
Tony Hand always runs a well drilled outfit. He recruits well, and he is tactically astute within the EPL plus has an outstanding assistant coach with Craig Moran being his second in command. His team also features the best skilled player in the EPL, with Frantisek Bakrlik now in his second season in Manchester.
The one downside to being an outstanding player is that teams focus on closing you down and that’s something most teams now do with the Phoenix #83.
So onto the game, the puck drops and Matt Thompson has got the game underway. Thommo is one of the most experienced referees on the circuit, a great communicator and game manager who’s style saves a lot of penalties being called, nipping incidents in the bud and allowing the game to flow freely.
That said it was on a delayed penalty that Manchester opened the scoring when Shaun Thompson beat Dean Skinns with just 6.12 elapsed in the game. It was a close call, the whistle and goal coming very close to each other but I was a whole ice pad away from the action, the referee right on top of the action so his decision will be based on a better view than mine. With the condensation still clearing from the surrounding glass the game was underway. Special teams provided the next goal with Bison pressuring the Phoenix zone while enjoying a powerplay and Tomas Karpov had the game levelled. A good first period ended 1-1.
The first period was high paced, high skilled hockey but both teams managed to step up a gear for the second period. Three goals were scored in the middle frame, Manchester taking the lead before Ciaran Long levelled and then put the team ahead in the 25th and 35th minutes. Still only a young man Ciaran has an advanced skill set and a huge enjoyment for his hockey so will continue to go from strength to strength.
After 40 minutes the game was still up for grabs, the result still on the line and Manchester pulled 3-3 at 41.24 with Burlin netting. What happened 1.18 later was one of the best goals you could see all season and will be well worth watching Bison TV for. Basingstoke had driven the zone and Steve Fone had saved a couple of shots but the attack wasn’t over. Ciaran Long and Aaron Connolly worked the puck between themselves giving Doug Sheppard time to get into the slot but making his way across the zone he was facing the wrong way for all but a back hand when he received the pass. You might think that this would give Steve Fone the chance to set up and make the save but in a flash Shep span round and launched off a shot that was the game winning goal for 4-3.
With 4.06 to go Joe Greener picked up a penalty allowing the Phoenix a powerplay opportunity but before they could start all the players left the bench to do a couple of slow laps to clear away the visibly thick mist that was hovering to a couple of feet above the ice. From our vantage point of the cafe end goal line it was almost impossible to see anything below the knee with play at the far end. The temporary break cleared the mist and the game recommenced.
Tony Hand called a time out with not long left in the game but any hope of getting Steve Fone off the bench and an extra attacker was nullified by the Bison. They put together some fine offensive play to ensure that they kept control of the puck in the Phoenix zone and therefore not allowing the netminder to leave his post.
This year’s Basingstoke Bison are a well constructed, well skilled and well drilled team. I said after the first game I saw them play this season that I thought they had every chance of scooping the league this season and I still believe that to be the case. It will be a tough challenge, more and more people are now predicting a Telford treble but I honestly don’t think it will be that simple. The Bison won two trophies last year, they strengthened well over the summer and retained many of their key players from the previous season.
The Elite League is where the money is, the NIHL1 is where the future stars are but the EPL is where the real deal is. It’s not import over-laden in the false belief that you need 13 imports to make a product watchable which makes recruitment even more key than the EIHL. You have just 4 non EIHA trained players slots, meaning those 4 have to be good. But with 4 good imports your Brits have some great players to learn from and develop with. Your top end Brits will be key to the success of the team, meaning you have to know the system you intend to play as you recruit and to recruit the right mix of players for the tactics and systems you want to play within your playing budget.
British ice hockey still has a lot to learn if it is to become anything other than a minority sport. But the EIHA are doing some things right, their flagship league has worked its way to a great level, they have a fantastic feeder league beneath in the NIHL1. There are some epic battles that take place in NIHL1, some good former EPL players are now plying their trade there to help develop the future talent. The talented under 18s have the NIHL1 to aspire to which will give them the step they need from junior to senior and a platform to develop before making the jump into EPIHL.