For my final live hockey game of the 14/15 season I followed the Bison to the Hive to watch them take on the Bees. Every game now is for pride only for the Bees as they know there are the solitary team from nine to miss the play-offs. Notable in their line up was the number of face cages and junior players drafted up while the Bison still missed Tomas Karpov, Declan Balmer and long term Matt Selby. I think it’s sadly fair to assume that we won’t see Selby play again this season which must be a huge disappointment for the young man.
Dan Boardman was given charge of the game and it wasn’t long before the goal light behind the home team net was illuminated. It was at 4.35 Ryan Watt and Andy Melachrino combined with Grant Rounding for the first goal. The puck looped high out of the reach of Tom Annetts in the Bees net and his defence did nothing but watch the Bison open the scoring.
Bison coughed up the first powerplay with a delay of the game call against Cam Wynn but killed the penalty with little trouble. It was an interference call to Pavel Strycek which gave the Bison their first powerplay and a great cycle from the visitors gave them goal two. They had comfortable possession in the zone and Aaron Connolly was in prime position close in front of the net to turn and fire a rebound heading in his direction into the back of the net at 18.11.
As the first period ticked on down Bison were more than good for their two goal lead. They had played far better hockey, had double the shots of their opponents and had finished well. Scott Spearing did little to help his team with a 10 minute misconduct penalty picked up at the 20 minute mark.
It was in the second period when the Bison effectively ended the game as a contest but not before Radek Hubacek had scored to half the deficit. Just 21 seconds into the period the puck was fed to the Bees import who went on to beat Skinns for his 15th goal of the season.
At 23.33 the difference was back to two goals as Cameron Wynn poked the poke home from close in. Tom Annetts had made a save put lost sight of the puck momentarily allowing the Bison man to bury it into the goal.
Bison scored their fourth after a great team effort. Ciaran Long set Joe Greener on a run into the attacking zone, he was about to let lose his shot when he held fire, turned and circled making space to pass to Doug Sheppard who sent the puck home with a perfect one timer between Annetts and the post on the glove side.
Bison continued killing penalties and Ciaran Long was in the box serving a cross checking penalty, despite the use of hands and not stick, when the Bison made it 1-5 with just 3 second left in the middle period. Joe Greener went into the zone with Stuart Mogg driving to the net, he unselfishly fed the puck across to the far side when Stuart Mogg drove hard to get a stick on the puck and guide it into the net. The young Bison ended up celebrating in a sprawled heap but he’d done the hard work getting to the net and finishing the Greener pass to conclude an impressive second period for the visiting team.
Bison didn’t play the third period with the same intensity as the first two. There’s an unwritten code not to run the score up in an opponent’s rink and if the Bison had continued to carry forward their play from the opening 40 minutes into the final 20 minutes the outcome would have been a blow out. Instead Sheppard used the opportunity to afford more ice time to the more junior members of the squad.
The Bees second goal at 47.37 was an impressive goal. Thomas Beesley, a Bracknell junior of diminutive stature took a good skate to the net and completed with a good release. Beesley skated round the Bison defence, resisting attempts to muscle him off the puck and as he dragged Skinns to the right side of the net deked left and beat the goaltender on the glove side. The Bees second would make any highlight reel and it’s a shame for the young man that the games aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, recorded anymore. It’s one for Beesley to be proud of, he played with skill and maturity in advance of his years to record his first senior goal.
Bracknell were gifted their third goal as Sam Waller’s shot beat the slow closing 5 hole of Dean Skinns for a powerplay marker with 8.31 left to play. It was a bonus goal, and one which made the margin much closer than the game itself. It also turned out to be the last goal of the game leaving the final score set at 3-5.
The pattern of reactionary calls only continued in the final stages of the game with Kurt Reynolds and Miroslav Vantroba picking up penalties reacting to offences from the Bees missed by the referee. His performance didn’t alter the outcome but did create frustration in the stands. It’s understandable that one man given charge cannot possibly see everything but what is frustrating is when that one man doesn’t alter his view but calls only the reaction penalty ignoring what give rise to the reaction offence which it’s logical to assume must also have been in view.
I had wondered with a couple of minutes left whether the Bees would take time-out and go with the empty net gamble. They had nothing to lose, their league position is set but a “giant killing” would boost their pride and probably give them a higher attendance at their final home game of the season in a couple of weeks against the Steeldogs. As it turned out they chose not to take the time-out and with just 10 seconds left Annetts headed back to the bench but the futile gesture came too late to make any impact in the game and Bison closed out for their two goal win.
It had been a clinical but fair performance from the Bison. For the first two periods they dismissed their opponents. They were quicker, faster, stronger and better skilled and drilled and it showed in the 1-5 score at the second interval. For the third period there was generous ice time awarded to younger members of the team, Brendon Baird enjoying a regular shift after his return from injury. The Bees second certainly couldn’t be denied to be a quality goal but their third should never have been scored. I guess 2-5 would have been a fair reflection of the game, the 3-5 margin flattered the Bees but the points still went to the visiting team.
Take nothing away from the home team, they worked hard all night long. In Vanya Antonov they have one of the most talented youngsters the EPL has seen for a long time and in their face cage players they have some promising talent for the future. They have also got the highly talented JJ Pitchley on two way with the Hornets but the league table doesn’t lie. They don’t have the depth of quality to compete against the EPL teams and their 7 wins from 45 starts proves that. There are no rewards for hard work otherwise those 19 points they accrued so far would be greater but despite going into most, if not all, games in the knowledge the odds were stacked against them they never stop working.
Every hockey club sells a “product” to the public. The on ice element of the product is within the control of the club. It’s down to the coach using his budget well to recruit good players and coaching them to a system which maximises the players strengths to gel into a good team. The off ice element is beyond the control of the club as it’s the rink and their facilities. Milton Keynes definitely have the nicest rink in the EPL where as the Bees must be frustrated. After years the clock still isn’t working on all four faces meaning the majority of the away fans have no idea what the game time is! The audio system also isn’t the best in the league either meaning the announcer starts against the odds. Little things like that probably do have an effect when people who don’t do every game are deciding whether or not to attend a Bees game.
The big thing in the favour of the Bees is that they are now the only professional hockey club in the area. Slough’s demise last season will have without doubt lost the Bees their four biggest gates of the season but it has left them in a position to pick up some slack among the large number of Slough fans left with no team. While the Bees wins have been thin on the ground this season their playing standards have been considerably higher than the next nearest team have offered in the NIHL2 despite a so far unbeaten record.
Rumours have a question mark hanging over the head of the Bees after what’s been a very tough season. Ben Beeching and Andrew Cross are both nice guys, they are doing a tough job but they are both sensible enough to know not to jeopardise the future of the club by taking financial gambles. I wish them well to budget for the season ahead and to keep the Bees competing and keep Berkshire a hockey county alongside Surrey and Hampshire.
The Bison have three games remaining in the league campaign before starting the defence of one of their two trophies. They will remain Premier Cup champions as that trophy has, it appears, been retired in favour of the “Challenge” Cup but the Play-offs are very much alive and Doug Sheppard will be keen to end the season on a winning note at Coventry. The progress of Tomas Karpov will be one of the biggest factors in the success or failure of the trophy quest. He is an import that makes things happen, he scores, he sets up, he works hard and when he’s not there you can’t help but notice his absence.
The EPL band wagon rolls on. Two weekends left in the regular season and then the two weekends of the play-offs are all that remain. For me however, with the home fixtures over the next three weekends being Sunday, nothing, and most probably Sunday the season is over. I went into this season with mixed feelings. I’ve been involved with hockey since 1992, I couldn’t just turn my back on the sport despite the ending of my team. Over the last seven months I’ve watched some great hockey, made some great friends and I’ve even got to announce three games. The season hasn’t been the write-off I feared after all.
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of the season, whether in person, or exchanging views on Twitter. Enjoy the next four weeks and have a fantastic summer.