After a weekend away from ice hockey it was time to get back to it and the final destination pre-Christmas was Bracknell where the Bison were playing a road game.
I had attended the first Bees vs Bison encounter where the home team had, in my opinion, snuck the win against the odds and I covered the DJ duties at Basingstoke when the Bees visited there too but that encounter was a win for the Bison after dropping 0-1 behind.
Bees were missing Lukas Smital from their line up with a calf injury, Bison were missing captain Nicky Chinn through suspension and Matt Selby still out through the concussion he suffered in the much talked about incident during the previous Bison visit to the Hive.
Stephen Matthews was the referee allocated to the game and just after 6pm the game got underway. Sitting behind the goal in the away section you hear absolutely nothing, you’re away speaking is happening but you can hear the words, you’re aware music is playing but you can’t really hear it clearly. You also can’t see the clock although that point is irrelevant as that entire face still isn’t working, but you can see right up and down the ice.
The two teams were locked together in an intense physical battle, two local rivals desperately battling for the points. The Bison were going through a rough spell, it had been a while since they’d won a league game while the Bees were sitting adrift at the bottom, 8 points away from Sheffield in 8th place but with 5 games in hand on the Steeldogs but 10 points behind the 7th place Manchester Phoenix but with only 2 games (and a possible 4 points) in hand.
At 5 on 5 nobody scored, both netminders were kept busy but were keeping clean sheets. It was a slashing call on Joe Baird, picked up as a retaliation after James Galazzi had downed two players, Baird included where the first goal was scored. Dean Skinns made a couple of early saves on the powerplay before Radek Hubacek made it 1-0. The Bees import forward’s shot took two clear deflections on its way to crossing the goal line and it was those that ensured the Bison goaltender was beaten.
Bison had earlier been given two powerplay chances of their own when James Galazzi and Matt Foord sat out separate tripping incidents but failed to capitalise.
The first period ended 1-0 but more importantly one of the Bison young guns was to sit out all but 6 minutes of the second period as Aaron Connolly was called for 2+2+10 for attempted spearing at the end of the opening stanza.
Period two saw Ciaran Long take an early delay of the game call after his clearance left the ice incurring the automatic penalty. Bison killed off the man advantage this time around before being undone by a freak of luck.
Ryan Watt headed up the ice towards Dean Skinns before dumping the puck into the zone. Skinns came out to the side of his net to play the puck but the actual bounce of the puck off the back boards was nothing like the expected bounce and this left young Danny Ingoldsby the best opportunity any player could ever ask for to score his first EPL goal. 25.25 and it’s 2-0 and all is looking rosy for the home team who won’t be grumbling that luck had played the biggest part in their two goals scored so far.
Not long after Doug Sheppard stepped up and made it 2-1. He worked hard and where the two goals previously had been the product of luck it was hard work and skill that saw Doug Sheppard gain his position and beat the Bees netminder at 27.47
Tensions heightened as the game progressed and a period of 4 on 4 soon came along when Joe Rand and Matt Foord sat out slashing and roughing penalties, the Bison man reacting to the slash he’d received.
With Bracknell having scored with the man advantage earlier it was fitting the Basingstoke should also complete a special teams goal at 35.26, with Vanya Antonov sitting out a tripping penalty Doug Sheppard blasted home his second of the night (this was changed on the electronic gamesheet to be Baird from Sheppard). After a big save from Alex Mettam the face-off was arranged to his left and won by the Bison and the big shot left the Bees goaltender no chance of the save. With 4.34 left in the second period it was 2-2. A couple more penalties showed the tension was still there in the game and the potential to boil over was also there but 2-2 was the score line at the second interval setting up a big finale for the game.
The third period again saw the visitors outshoot the home team, but despite the earlier promise of afters the third period saw only a single penalty called on each team. The action was tense, tough and physical but the 20 minutes of ice hockey ended scoreless and 4 on 4 sudden death overtime was coming up.
The extra space of 4 on 4 is designed to maximise the chance of scoring and to bring a positive (well for one team anyway) result to the game. Bison picked up a penalty with Miroslav Vantroba called for tripping 1.25 into the extra 5 minutes and the Bees took the chance to call their time-out. Some close chances came on the powerplay and Skinns stood tall making some huge saves.
With just 8 seconds left on the powerplay Matt Foord picked up 2 minutes for boarding, running Declan Balmer head first into the boards in front of the visitors’ bench. In what was an unsavoury moment the penalty was the correct call despite a Bees’ fan sat nearby shouting “it’s all part of the game Declan”. Not certain what part of what game a hit like that is but it has no place at all in EPL hockey.
Even with Bison taking their time out 8 seconds on the man advantage wasn’t enough for them to score despite forcing a couple of good chances and penalty shots were to decide the result.
After the brief period where penalties are organised Joe Rand stepped forward to shoot first for the Bison against Alex Mettam. The Bison import saw his shot meet the extended pad of the Bees man. Radek Hubacek was first to shoot for the Bees and in an almost predictable fashion Dean Skinns denied the Bees man as he had done earlier in the season. 0-0 after round 1.
Ciaran Long was next to shoot and I am struggling to think of a better British penalty shot taker that’s played the game in all my years of involvement. Long’s scoring was almost as predictable as Hubacek’s failure to score but it was the method of the goal that was the beauty of the whole thing. Long advanced towards Mettam as would any other player but when he got close in Mettam was left never really knowing when Long was going to shoot as the Bison man waited, waited, waited and when it seemed he’d ran out room casually slotted the puck away for the first goal of the shootout. He makes penalty shots look effortless, he has so much more time than any other player and it’s like the puck is obediently hanging on a piece of string. Jan Bendik’s effort at the other end was a little less spectacular, a straight forward move off to the left and heading back to the net but denied by Skinns. 0-1 after round 2.
Tomas Karpov was the third shooter for the visitors. If he scored the competition was over and the Bison would win. If his attempt failed then focus would swing to the other end where a Skinns save would secure a Bison win. Karpov moved off to the left of Mettam, heading way out to the hashmarks before angling back in at the net but Mettam was equal to the challenge and the puck never entered the net. Focus then swung to Ryan Watt who would take the final shot before the potential for sudden death shots. Watt’s penalty shot was no nonsense, a right handed shooter taking the puck from the centre circle, approaching the net purposefully but denied by Skinns, forcing the puck away to the right of the net, and in doing so securing the win for the Bison, the 2 points going to the visitors and the consolation point to the home team.
Basingstoke’s character impressed me last night. The game was closer than it should have been but the Bison are having a tough time right now. The double deflection powerplay goal and the curious bounce second Bees goal could have been enough to finish off the game but strong teams win ugly games. When you’re on a run and form is with you it’s easier to string together a winning run but when you’ve got players missing, form isn’t on your side and you’ve gone a few league games without winning it’s a show of character how you break the streak. It’s not about the booming slapshots, the huge saves and the shut-outs but the grinding out for loose pucks in the corner, the winning the marginal battles, playing the body and winning and finding a way to get the job done.
For the Bees they made the most of their luck and from it earned a bonus point. They had three face cage players in their line-up, the regular Vanya Antonov, his brother Ilya and Danny Ingoldsby who scored his first EPL goal. I’ve said before Vanya Antonov is scarily good, he has the potential to play at the very highest level. He’s small but fast and skilled. The one thing I will say is that it won’t be long before big money offers come in for him and in truth if he is to achieve his potential he will need time with a contending team, pressure of expectation, high quality players to play along with. His future is bright but I fear for the Bees that one of their rivals will outbid them for his services when it comes to contract renewal time.
For the Bison they will be looking to get Nicky Chinn back in the line up after his suspension. They’ll also be looking forward to the return of Matt Selby but I understand that won’t be until the New Year. Most concussions clear up on their own within a couple of weeks, the fact that he has missed so much domestic competition time before then having to step down from GB under 20 duty is a worry. He is a big part of the Bison roster but Doug knows the importance of him being 100% right before he plays again so all we can do is to wish him well for his recovery and hope to see him back out on the ice, fully fit and recovered, at some time in 2015.
Selby’s continued absence does reinforce the fact that the league need to clamp down on head shots. Yes players wear helmets but helmets offer protection from, not immunity from risks of injury.
With the half way turnaround of the season approaching the last few weeks for the Bison have been disappointing. They played a great opening to the season, challenging the Tigers all the way into mid November before a run of cup games and some league results going against them sees them one game before Christmas sitting in fourth place. They have games in hand on the Phantoms in second place but games in hand are only any use if they’re won.
The Bison have the right coach and the right tools to mount a challenge in the second half of the season. They have depth up front and in defence as well and also now know that Ricky Skene is available to cover if needed adding extra depth.
The Bees lie adrift at the bottom of the table. Radek Hubacek must be a concern, the 29 year old Czech forward has just 5 goals from 19 games. He has just 8 assists from those games meaning his point production is just 0.68 per game. Compare that to 40 year old veteran Czech Lukas Smital who has 13+8 from 18 games for over a point per game. With a 2 and 2 import split it’s essential you get the returns you need from your import forwards. Smital is providing that, although he’s currently out injured, however Hubacek is currently a hard working passenger in the team. If he can turn his season around the Bees stand a chance of pulling themselves up in the standings.
Ryan Watt has proved with Slough in the past that he is a game winner. He’s a scorer, a play maker, an enforcer and a talisman however he needs players around him that can play to his standard. I’ve read internet forum posts that he is no good, that’s simply not true. He’s impressed me year on year but he isn’t a one man army. What he can do on his own is lift his team but he needs his team to respond to him and to play to his level.
On reflection, luck against them made the game closer than it should have been for the Bison but when it came to penalty shots, with Ciaran Long in the team, the Bison were always favourites to gain the two points.