A massive sell out crowd gathered at the Basingstoke Arena for the Flames final visit of the regular season. Season ticket holders only were the sole people to be gaining admission long before the face-off as the “Sold Out” signs were put up. A sell out is always a success, it means the club is doing good things but on and off the ice to generate the desire for people to come and fill the building but sadly it does also mean fans of both teams end up being turned away.
Bison welcomed back Aaron Connolly and Grant Rounding but were still without Matt Selby, Tomas Karpov and Brendon Baird. It meant the Bison would go into the game playing 3 vs 4 in terms of non EIHA trained players. The Flames were without experienced netminder Gregg Rockman, handing James Hadfield the start and Samuel Calder the backup role.
Stef Hogarth was allocated control of the game with Amy Lack and Justin Lalonde alongside him and just after 6.30 the packed Bison arena watched on for the first drop of the puck.
The game started brightly with periods of pressure coming at both ends. The Bison first gained the Flames zone and tested Hadfield before the Flames did the same in testing Skinns. This pattern of play continued giving the crowd in attendance a glimpse of the entertainment they were going to have for their ticket money.
In the 5th minute of the game Stuart Mogg and Andy Melachrino both had chances and at 6.45 Melachrino gained the zone, centred up to Ciaran Long giving rise to the best chance of the game so far.
At 7.41 the whistle blew as behind the play Declan Balmer and Andy McKinney dropped their sticks, gloves and helmets to do battle. With the event taking place so far behind the play it was hard to tell what had started the altercation but after both players had exchanged some good blows with the other the two combatants patted each other on the back and headed to the penalty box to serve their time. It was at this point the possible reason became clear as both players shared double roughing minors but Balmer had also earned himself a hooking penalty.
Just past the half way point in the period Joe Greener went behind the net, saw his coach alone in front and fed Doug Sheppard only to see the Canadian denied by a good stop from Hadfield. Soon after Ryan Campbell found himself on the receiving end of a huge crunching hit!
At 10.56 the deadlock was broken when the Guildford Flames gained the zone and Dean Skinns was beaten by a backhand shot from Matt Towe.
Soon after Andy Melachrino left the ice after an unpleasant looking hit. From my vantage point it looked like Melachrino’s shoulder had dropped but he would later return to the game.
There then followed some intense pressure around the Flames net, in the 11th minute the net came free from behind Hadfield but at 12.25 after more pressure around the goal Aaron Connolly, on his return from concussion, bundled the puck under Hadfield finishing from Joe Greener and Ciaran Long.
With 1.18 left in the period Branislav Kvetan slotted Flames’ second goal past Dean Skinns and the second that the goaltender, if in top form, would most probably want back.
The first period had been a pretty even affair, 1-1 would have been a fair reflection but Flames had the goals on the board to give them the lead.
James Hadfield had a testing start to period two. He made three outstanding saves before Joe Greener levelled the game at 24.16. He made a fantastic run down into the zone, shot and then buried the rebound.
Aaron Connolly and Joe Rand came down the ice with speed at 25.54 only to be whistled for the offside. Soon after the Bison were back laying big hits and just after the midway point in the game Michael Wales was denied by a good Hadfield save after a long shift.
At 35.00 Bison finally got the lead the deserved with Rand and Long combining for a quality shorthanded goal. Flames had been working their play in the Bison zone before coughing up the turnover, Ciaran Long set off down the ice and Joe Rand went with him. Long drew Hadfield towards him before laying off a perfect pass for Rand who made it 3-2.
After the remaining 5 minutes of period 2 were played Bison could head to their dressing room reflecting on a perfect 2-0 period.
What followed was some excellent ice hockey as the capacity crowd got their money’s worth and more. A poor start to the final period from Dean Skinns saw Danny Meyers level up at 3-3 and it was at the other end of the period where the goals came again. Hadfield in particular put on a super show in the third period, turning away shot after shot.
The action was still physical and still feisty in the final period. The league was on the line with Telford holding a slender lead in Peterborough Guildford knew they had to win and hope Telford didn’t to keep the league alive. Bison knew that a win for them handed the league to Telford but the Hampshire side couldn’t catch the Tigers so their priority was to try and secure second ahead of the Flames, a win of course helping that.
Players put their bodies on the line, they showed their skills but it was at 56.40 when finally the deadlock was broken. Ciaran Long and Kurt Reynolds combined to feed Aaron Connolly for the go ahead goal with 3.20 left to play. Bison win, you might think but soon after Paul Dixon takes the Flames timeout. Following the stoppage the visitors returned to action with 6 skaters and an empty net and it took just 13 seconds for Vladimir Kutny to beat Dean Skinns in a pressure situation for 4-4.
Sudden death overtime couldn’t separate the teams, in fact there were just 2 shots in the additional period both of them on Hadfield in the Flames net while the Flames themselves didn’t trouble Dean Skinns. The night headed to penalties to decide the result.
Scorer on the night Kutny was to shoot first and he centred himself up on Dean Skinns, firing in a close range shot but the goaltender went down and his split legs took away the entire bottom of the net.
Joe Rand, who also had a goal on the night, was the first Bison shooter. He drove to the net quickly and lifted his shot off the ice but into the chest pad of Hadfield who kept a clean sheet after the first round of shots.
Marcus Kristofferson was the next Flame entrusted with a shot and he would reward his coach’s decision. He shot on the stick side of Dean Skinns and bulged the twine behind the goaltender.
Up stepped Ciaran Long, in my opinion one of the best penalty takers in the league. At the very last minute he lost control of the puck and couldn’t quite gain enough control back to get an effective shot off.
With Roman Tvrdon just needing to score to secure the win his attempt was saved and now the pressure shifted back to Joe Greener who needed to score.
Greener was the final shooter before sudden death and his was a calm and collected shot that went off the ice and into the back of the net meaning the game headed to sudden death.
Kvetan took the first sudden death shot, attempting a five hole goal but Skinns had the hole closed and Kvetan left empty handed.
Grant Rounding, making his return from a lengthy injury lay off was the first sudden death shooter for the Bison. It was a brave call with it being his first game back but he came up big with a calm and collected top drawer effort to beat Hadfield and secure the winning point to add to the overtime point ensuring a happy night for the home team.
A brief summary of the game is that a packed sell out crowed enjoyed 65+ minutes of ice hockey. There was skill, physicality, tension and everything you could want from a game. That’s a pretty accurate description of what happened but the truth is that the Bison should have wrapped the game up in regulation time. Flames goals weren’t top quality, indeed the winning goaltender did so with an 81% save percentage! Had the save percentage been more near an acceptable level then overtime and penalties wouldn’t have happened and the Bison would have won probably 4-1.
Most coaches build their hockey team from the goaltender out. The shot stopper is arguably the most important player on the squad. However when your goaltender wins with such a low save percentage it says a lot for the quality of the rest of your team. When that happens, and you’re missing Tomas Karpov, it says even more. It doesn’t however cover the worry over that important save statistic! Every goalie can have an off day and I’m sure Shep and the Bison will be hoping that’s what happened last night.
Tonight the Bison head to Telford to face the league champions. No longer are the Tigers the Champions elect as the combination of last night’s results ensured that the Tigers are now uncatchable in the league table and have completed 1/3 of their trophy goals of the season.
Congratulations to Telford. They are a good team, over the course of the season they’ve proven themselves a good team and the best in the league. I said at the start of the season I thought Bison might be league champions and the Tigers have proven me wrong. Full credit to the men of Telford who have been playing the whole season pretty much in the “shop window” of expectation.
Let’s get down to it, Telford are a good team, their results prove that. However you cannot look past the fact they are a good team because of the huge investment from their new ownership. That investment has been used well and has recruited a good team. The wages on offer allow the Tigers to enjoy more quality time training together making them very well drilled. The wages on offer have also allowed them to recruit the very best players to build the best team.
For the Tigers involved since the trust inception, the trust members and the long term supporters last night was a very proud moment. The table has indicated for some time what was going to happen but last night that changed from what was going to happen to what had happened and now Telford Tigers are officially 14/15 EPIHL Champions to be recorded as such forever. They have their place booked in the Cup final and the Play-offs are ahead too meaning they have the opportunity of the treble in their own hands.
Past this season, what of the future for the Tigers? I think Wayne Scholes has proven he is building something for the long term and his investment may not have paid off financially yet but in terms of success it certainly has. For the investment to pay off financially the Tigers will need a much larger rink and with that in mind together with the dropping of Telford from their website, social media and PR output that rumour of a move isn’t quite put to bed yet.
There was a quote from Wayne Scholes in the summer which went something like Everyone knows who’s going to win the league, how boring is that? Well Telford have won the league in February with a month left in the regular season. I wonder if that quote is still applicable now?
Elsewhere in hockey Slough won NIHL2 South, East Conference. They’ve gone 21 games undefeated and that sees them lift the crown. There are some fantastic young talented players on the team who, as they develop, will either be held back by loyalty of playing for their home town in a low level league or will have to move on to another club with prospects. As has been said before there is no need, with the exception of in 1 person’s mind, for Slough to solely have senior hockey played at NIHL2, limiting the prospects of the future stars, but last night congratulations to those young stars who won their league.
In the week I was invited on Facebook to attend last night’s Slough game. In Basingstoke I witnessed 65+ minutes of skilful ice hockey, played at pace, with passion. I saw a scrap, I saw physicality, I saw 8 regulation time goals and 3 successful penalty shots and I saw friends. I’m happy with my decision.