Due to my work commitments this Saturday would turn out to be our final trip to Basingstoke this side of Christmas. We had missed out on the Phantoms first visit to Basingstoke, the one where Janis Auzins proved he was susceptible to being wound up and the one where Dave Cloutman had to call a break to calm tempers and award penalties.
A lot has changed since that day. The Phantoms have proven themselves as no longer a bottom team. Currently sitting in second place (although helped by having played extra games) they have cast off their recent reputation of either missing the play-offs or just scraping in to then be wiped out easily in the quarter finals and have played some good hockey this season proving that a good coach can put together a good team and achieve good results.
The top three as it stands is Telford, Peterborough and Basingstoke. Guildford, who sit in fourth, have cast aside Owen Fussey and Curtis Huppe to bring in Vladimir Kutny and Roman Tvrdon in an effort to turn around their season. It’s not often Guildford make sweeping changes mid season but they obviously want to push into the top three and felt their starting imports weren’t going to get them there.
After the opening three months of the season I believe the first and second place are pretty much decided, the rest of the league get to contest from 3 to 9.
Bison headed into the game missing Matt Selby, Cam Wynn and Declan Balmer all on GB Under 20 Duty and Joe Greener, missing through suspension. Four big absentees from the line up which as the game went on may show. Phantoms were missing player/coach Slava Koulikov who due to injury meaning he stayed on the bench.
61 seconds were all that passed before the game’s first goal that came about just 5 seconds into the game’s first powerplay. James Hutchinson caught Doug Sheppard in the middle of the Phantoms defensive zone with a high stick that brought down the Bison coach but a face-off saw Sheppard take revenge and make it 1-0. The shot came from Vantroba, the goal was originally announced as Vantroba from Long but after amendment it showed that the felled player from the errant high stick was the one that did the damage. One shot, one goal was the position of the game so far.
Bison killed off their first penalty but it was a 5 on 3 chance that saw Darius Pliskauskas equalise. Ricky Skene picked up a slashing call but the next penalty was the most questionable call of the night from my opinion. Auzins had left his net to play the puck in the corner, and Michael Wales had caught up to him. Auzins cleared the puck, Wales headed back in front of the net and Auzins ended up sprawled on the floor. If there was contact it was minimal but tripping was the call. If tripping was to be called then diving should also have been called but it wasn’t and Peterborough ended up 5 on 3.
Pliskauskas is a player it’s a joy to watch. He’s a big physical man but he plays the game fair. He uses his size and strength to control the puck well when being challenged but his equalising goal came from a booming shot from the blue line which left Dean Skinns little chance through traffic. Had it not been a 5 on 3 then maybe that goal wouldn’t have come but it did and it’s 1-1 just within 9 minutes.
The third goal came about back at even strength. It was a strange moment in the game, Apellis drove the puck towards the net and then in a mêlée in front of the net everybody lost sight of the puck. The little black piece of rubber however was glowing like a beacon for Alan Lack who found it sitting unprotected right in front of the goal and did what he had to do. He raced to the net, got a stick on the puck that seemingly nobody else could see and the Phantoms had the lead at 11.48.
Significantly while Phantoms forwards were beating Dean Skinns, Janis Auzins was growing in confidence. He was beginning to look unbeatable, much like Tom Murdy had the previous weekend. 7 days ago I said I thought Bison were the better team but the game was won in a goaltending battle with Murdy coming out on top. Auzins was seeing the puck bigger and bigger but significantly he was playing the game well, he saw players keen to wind him up, his defence kept Bison players away from him and he soaked up the pressure.
By the time the 20 minute buzzer sounded to end the first period the crowd had witnessed a good period of hockey. It had speed, intensity, physicality and goals. It also had the potential to see the game kick off later on as well. The Bison had had their chances to equalise but it just hadn’t happened for them. Pucks had passed through the slot which players could grab to finish with. Bison could feel disappointed at being behind, Phantoms first coming on a 5 on 3 that should never have been but you can take nothing away from the Phantoms men who had put on a good show to deserve their first period lead.
Period two saw an early powerplay as Darius Pliskauskas was called for hooking at 21.25. The Phantoms killed the advantage, and a pattern started to emerge. Having been beaten on the first shot he faced Auzins was now turning it round. It looked like he was nailed on certain to save every first shot. He was strong with the pads, the gloves, the blocker and he even used his stick well to puck away loose pucks. Some of the shots he faced were direct and at his body but he dealt with them well. He was well supported by his defence, the rebounds he gave that he couldn’t clear himself were cleared by his netminder. One thing that did however stand out to me was how quick his defence were to rally back and get involved to stop any closeness between Bison and Auzins.
Just after the half way mark of the middle period the big momentum changer happened. Phantoms broke out a two goal lead which happened almost in slow motion. James Ferrara got a shot off as the Phantoms crowded around the net, Bison D moving in weren’t quick enough to clear the zone. A sprawling save from Dean Skinns saw him deny Ferrara but nobody had control of the puck. Matthews could see the puck still in play so couldn’t blow the play dead, the Bison defence couldn’t get to the puck and neither could Dean Skinns who found the puck just out the reach of his outstretched arms as he grappled to smother it. Tom Norton managed to get a stick on it and it slowly crossed the line for 1-3.
It was similar to the goal that Alan Lack had scored earlier in the game but I had a better view of this one as it happened right in front of me. The difference this time was that Dean Skinns had full sight of the puck but after a tremendous first save and flat on his front he couldn’t reach to clear or cover it.
Bison grappled back into the game thanks to Tomas Karpov with a powerplay goal for 2-3 with 3.42 left in the second period. The 5 on 3 advantage allowed Bison enough space to do the work they wanted. The face off was won and the puck fed to Karpov who set off driving the net and a huge shot set the water bottle flying, the goal light came on and the Bison were right back in the game.
Just 2.08 later Phantoms had restored their two goal margin while back on the powerplay. James Ferrara finished after a shot from Norton was saved by Skinns. The Bison goaltender was down to make the original save and Ferrara was close enough to lift the rebound over Skinns to make it 2-4.
The third period needed to be massive. For the Bison, short on defence, they needed to open up and attack. They needed to break down Auzins and his defence to find the two goals they needed to tie up the game. The Phantoms needed to close out on their performance of the opening two periods, win the game from a position of control after 40 minutes.
Both strategies come with an element of risk. For the Bison, who are one of the very best teams in the league the two goals could potentially have been found but by doing so, and missing defenceman on GB duty, it posed the risk of opening up and possibly conceding. The Phantoms on the other hand by closing down and protecting their lead ran the risk of conceding to the all out attack of their opponents but also missing out on opportunities at the other end of the ice.
Early Bison pressure in the third period came to a swift end as the referee blew his whistle following the Phantoms net becoming dislodged from it’s moorings. Later Ricky Skene showed his dissatisfaction at being called for tripping and Matthews added a 10 minute penalty to the sit down time. The penalty was killed off and soon Bison found themselves on the powerplay as first Lack and then Bebris were awarded two minute penalties for tripping and slashing. The on ice strength levelled at 4 each when Rand was called for boarding but the teams traded powerplays as the game ticked on.
Auzins kept on making saves, from Connolly, Reynolds and Baird as the time ticked down the game held one more incident. With 2.49 left to play Vantroba and Webster came together behind the Bison goal and both picked up 2+2 for roughing however the Bison man took an additional 25 minutes for a match penalty adjudged for butt ending.
The consequences of the match penalty were bigger than the suspension itself. Under EIHA rules, brought in to level the playing field considering teams who have spare import(s), a suspended import sits out a game but the team must also play minus an overseas player for the length of the suspension meaning that if a spare import is available he cannot play.
Bison’s next game is a cup game against Invicta. To try and level the playing field EPIHL teams must play to the strength of the NIHL rules meaning two imports only can play. Sheppard as a player/coach can’t play leaving Vantroba, Karpov and Rand to choose from for the two import slots. However, with one suspended that leaves Karpov and Rand to choose from for the one slot available.
The Phantoms game closed out with the score not changing from the end of the second period. Basingstoke had worked hard in the final 20 minutes, outshooting their opponents 10-4 but Auzins had done what Murdy had the week before and closed out the opponents. After a 1 for 1 start Auzins came good, and did a great job for his team.
Auzins finished the game with a 94.44 save percentage and Skinns an 85.71 save percentage. On paper it’s easy to apportion blame but before considering the black and white facts of the stats you have to remember that the Bison were playing extremely short on defence.
The Phantoms put in a good performance, deserving of the win. I spoke with Slava after the game, he was pleased to have gained the win against a team he rates highly. He was rightly proud of his team’s efforts.
I’ve seen Auzins in action three times now, twice against Guildford and once against the Bison. He’s impressed me, he’s proven worthy of the import slot he occupies and the complications it brings to on ice lines and tactics. I’ve heard people criticise him, certainly from the video footage of the first encounter against Basingstoke he should take some of the blame for the brawl that occurred. He seemed ill prepared for what was about to hit him on his EPL debut. Last night he may have dislodged the net, he certainly embellished what small contact, if any, came from Michael Wales last night to gain the Phantoms a 5 on 3 advantage. But, and here I’m aware many may not agree, every sport needs its characters. Sport is entertainment, characters provide entertainment. Auzins is a character every bit the way Ian Bothan, Andrew Flintoff and Merv Hughes were in cricket and every bit the way Ronnie O’Sullivan is in snooker.
For Doug Sheppard’s men the final buzzer last night ended a brave fight perhaps against the odds. It did also allow Phantoms to open the gap between 2 and 3, it allowed Flames to close the gap between 3 and 4.
I have no doubt in my mind that come the time of reckoning at the business end of the season it will be the Bison contesting the top two with the Tigers but on the night the right team took the points.