The destination for tonight’s Jets fan on tour game for myself and Ben was the closest rink to home, Bracknell, where the Basingstoke Bison were visiting the Bees.
The form book would have said that Basingstoke would have walked the game. A blow out score would have been predicted but ice hockey is played on the ice and as various teams have proven in the EPL over the years although there can sometimes be a gap between top and bottom in the table you can never count points in the bag before you’ve earned them.
We arrived before the line ups, in time to secure a seat behind the visiting goal (for periods 1 and 3), sat in with the Hampshire team fans. The downside to that seating location is that you can’t stand only sit, you can’t see the clock (although that’s irrelevant as that side doesn’t work) and with the safety glass extending right up to the ceiling it’s difficult to hear.
Basingstoke Bison were missing two of their talented young players, Ciaran Long and Aaron Connolly. That’s two top players missing from the line-up but it was the same line-up that had beaten Sheffield the previous night. Bracknell Bees came into the game on the back of the wrong end of a 4-0 shut-out at Coventry, concluding Milton Keynes’ Lightning’s tenancy of the Skydome.
Alex Mettam was found wanting early on in the game, a poor attempted save allowing Doug Sheppard to put his team ahead in the second minute. Bracknell were trying to find the limits of Referee Boardman and it soon became clear he wasn’t going to call the strictest of games we’ve seen in the EPL this season so the Bees continued their chippy and physical game.
With Declan Balmer sat in the penalty box Doug Sheppard pounced on a loose puck and drove for Mettam in the Bees net, Michael Wales went with his coach in support and when the coach’s shot was saved a patient, well taken rebound from Muzzy saw the Bees two clear goals down.
The second period was a 3-1 affair in favour of the Bees. Even a couple of hours after the conclusion of the game I’m not quite certain how that came about. The period didn’t even end before the resurface but we’ll come to that in due course.
The Bison, starting the period 2 goals ahead would have been disappointed to finish it tied. Antonov scored first for 1-2 (and we’ll come back to him later), Sheppard scored next for 1-3 and the margin restored. The Bison boss shows no signs of losing any of the speed or skill that have made him one of the best non EIHA trained players in the EPL. He’s clearly enjoying his hockey in Basingstoke and it reflects in his continued excellent personal play.
With it being clear that the referee was allowing the Bees to play a chippy game the tensions boiled at the half way mark. A huge hit from Matt Selby on Chris Wiggings clearly irritated the Bees man who skated on to level the Bison man in a move that saw him finish flat on the ice. Watching end to end it’s impossible to gauge the angle leading to the dropping of Selby but the referee saw what he saw and clearly felt the incident worthy of the match penalty awarded to Wiggy for roughing. As I said earlier from where we were sat it was impossible to hear what, if anything, was said on the ice but clearly something was said by Selby as his reward for being levelled by Wiggins was a 10 minute misconduct penalty. What interested me most was immediately after the punch from Wiggins Alex Mettam skated right to the end of his defensive zone (as far as he is allowed in normal play without attracting a penalty). As pushing and shoving occurred in response to the incident Mettam appeared to want to join in. Even when he returned to his net he appeared to be calling Dean Skinns forward from the Bison goal. Skinns failed to reply other than a shrug of the shoulders and nothing further came of that incident. From that moment on the period changed, physical exchanges increased in frequency and after Smital and Bendik making it 3-3 the period failed to finish. After a lengthy delay following a whistle the players from the ice and from both benches left the ice and heading to their respective dressing rooms with 1.23 left in the second period. The ice resurface took place and the 1.23 was left to play-out upon the return to the ice after the interval.
The tactical early closure of the second period obviously was done with the intention of allowing the referee to re-gain control of the game. The mid period Wiggins penalty turned up the intensity of the game, with a period left to play it was essential that the tensions were not allowed to boil over resulting in possible further player ejections from the game so the early second break was called.
The final 1.23 of period 2 was played after the resurface and the teams changed ends for the immediate start of period 3.
Period 3 wasn’t the same clinical performance by either team as they’d put on beforehand. The special teams failed to capitalise on a couple of powerplay opportunities each and the game looked to be heading to OT.
With 10 seconds left in regulation time Lukas Smital scored the game winner, a well taken shorthanded effort. He held his nerve and his patience and drew Dean Skinns with him on the left hand side of his net and with the netminder stretched to his limit Smital eventually beat him for 4-3.
A Bison timeout was called immediately (which was announced through) and it seemed to take an eternity to re-start the game. As expected Skinns remained on the bench in favour of an extra skater. In the dying seconds the whistle blew and yet more penalties were called following a melee around the Bees goal. Strycek got a 2+10 check from behind penalty, Rand 2+2 for roughing and Karpov 2 for roughing. With the players in the box, the penalties announced there followed a lengthy delay while the time remaining in the game was re-assessed. It took minutes before an announcement was made explaining that 3 seconds remained in the game while those that could see the clock noticed that there had been 6 seconds left when the whistle blew.
The final 3 seconds saw no scoring and the Bees, most would say against the odds, took the win and the two points.
Ahead of the announcements of the man of the match awards I picked out Doug Sheppard for the Bison and Lukas Smital for the Bees as my personal choices. Sheppard was duly announced as the Bison award winner ahead of Jan Bendik being called forward as the Bees Man of the Match.
For the Bison, I’m sure they will be left wondering how they got from 0-2 to 3-3 within the space of 18.37 in a game that they appeared to have the upper hand in. Ciaran Long and Aaron Connolly are both huge absentees but all the same if you didn’t read the scoresheet you could have been forgiven for thinking that Basingstoke were ahead at the second interval instead of the actual 3-3 score.
The Bees to their credit could have let their heads drop at 0-2 after 20 minutes. They didn’t, they took their chances when they came and despite the Bison being the better of the two teams for the majority of the game the Bees proved that as long as you take your chances when they come you still stand a chance of winning the game.
The Bees also sensed early that referee Boardman wasn’t for calling them up on their chosen style so capitalised on the freedom he allowed them to play with. He did make calls but perhaps not the same calls as some of the other EPL refs might have called.
Basingstoke will be looking forward to getting Aaron Connolly back following his suspension and Ciaran Long back as soon as he is fit again. Their next opponents are the Manchester Phoenix who are once again tipped as a serious contender this season.
One thing I touched on last season on Twitter is how frighteningly promising and talented Ivan Antonov is. He is just 17 and by virtue of his two or more years with an EIHA junior club he plays as an English trained player despite being born in Russia. He’s small at 5’8, he weighs just 141lbs but as any adult knows the body you have at 17 isn’t the body you have a few years later. He will gain size in the form of bulk and if he can do that while retaining his speed he will have a fantastic hockey career ahead of him. He has the potential to play in the EIHL if he so chooses. He stayed loyal to his local club this season, he is one of the Bees top players but I wonder how long it will be before one of the EPL big budget teams comes calling with a high money offer for him. I’ve read great reviews of him on Twitter from fans of the EPL teams he’s so far played against this year and I’m sure Head Coaches and Assistant Coaches of other EPL teams will also notice this and it won’t be long before Ivan Antonov is on their shopping list.
The EPL is a changed structure this year. Nine teams means an odd number of games every weekend. Yes, there is the English Challenge Cup with some NIHL1 teams stepping up and these games designed to fill the void left by Slough’s departure. Whether or not these games are as well attended at the EPL clubs as their regular league games I don’t know. I’m not privy to any of the attendance records or financial records of any of the EPL teams but my plea to hockey fans is simple…
I believe the EPL is the best league we have on offer in the country. It balances skill, passion and competition in the perfect combination to give an exciting and good value for money experience. The business model works, the product is appealing and until the summer of 2014 the longevity of the 10 team league looked good. Slough are gone, finished as a hockey town for now having dropped their senior team and chosen to exist solely way down in the fourth tier of the sport, the EPIHL is now a nine team league which means each team has forgone three league incomes from their budgets. Despite the English Challenge Cup games there are still teams sitting out from home games on weekends and all this adds to the strain on the team owners to keep their clubs going and continue to provide the same highly entertaining product and the same value for money.
Support your local club when you can. There’s nine teams around the league, pay them a visit, give the sport a try. Ask any hockey fan how they got started and you’ll hear a similar story;
“We stumbled upon it by mistake but we got hooked”, or
“We tried it once and we are now hooked” ….
Support your team and try taking a newbie with you too. The EPL is alive and well, let’s keep it that way for many years to come.