The Basingstoke Bison lined up to take on the Manchester Phoenix, even with the warm up coming to an end it was notable that the rink was filling well. By the time the puck dropped the stands were still filling, people were still coming in and a great night of hockey lay ahead.
As appears inevitable Manchester were suffering a January injury crisis, the Bison were also missing long term absentee Matt Selby and shorter term absentees Grant Rounding and Brendon Baird.
Paul Brooks was the man in charge of this one although perhaps not in charge of his own trousers. Throughout the night as he skated hard up and down the ice his trousers rose to a summer fashionable ¾ length before dropping back down to full length again in the lesser intense skating periods. The trousers took nothing away from his officiating which was pretty good however I felt were worthy of a mention.
At 6.37 the puck dropped and the game was underway. The Bison tactics were plain to see from the off, they would dominate their short benched opponents! At just 1.22 Bison players gathered in front of the net, Phoenix players failed to clear the area and Doug Sheppard bundled home a rebound chance to open the scoring. The goal was originally announced as being scored by Joe Greener but later corrected by the officials as Sheppard finishing from Long and Greener. The Bison had gained the zone almost straight away and despite being 5 on 5 Phoenix hadn’t looked like breaking the play, allowing the Bison to move down closer and closer to pressure Fone who after a couple of saves could do nothing to deny Sheppard the game’s opener.
After an impressive save from Dean Skinns against former Bison Jacob Heron the action quickly swung back to the other end, Vantroba, Rand, Long and Connolly all getting shots off with just Fone denying the scoreboard from rolling up in the favour of the home team.
Bison were offered the game’s first powerplay when Archer sat but a call against Nicky Chinn for tripping set the on ice strength to 4 on 4. It was with the level strength but extra ice that the Phoenix opened their account when Frankie Bakrlik shot from the point, roofing the puck high over Skinns for 1-1 at 5.16.
It’s worth pointing out that although I no longer get to see Frankie play week in week out he showed last night he is still the best import in the league. He is head and shoulders above anyone else playing in the EPL right now, he has speed, he has skill and he has size. He is virtually impossible to muscle off the puck, some can’t even keep up with him skating and he can do things with the puck on the end of the stick you wouldn’t think possible. A fantastic scoop by Tony Hand to keep him on for a second year.
If I was coaching a team my shopping list for a first line for EPL hockey would be Frankie Bakrlik, Ales Padelek and Ciaran Long and boy would that line put up seriously hot numbers.
Back to the game and after conceding the equaliser and playing out the remainder of the 4 on 4 and killing the penalty it was back to where things had left off before penalties were called. There was a fine moment of play which probably deserved the sounding of the goal horn but Fone denied the warranted celebrations. Doug Sheppard gained the zone with Long following, the defence grouped towards Sheppard who left a perfect drop pass for Long and Fone just got enough of the shot to keep it at 1-1.
Goal 3 of the game came about in a similar fashion to goal 1. The Bison were once again dominating play, pressuring hard around the Phoenix net. Vantroba drove the puck to the net to Sheppard, Sheppard found Long and Long found the back of the twine to make it 2-1, sound the goal horn and set a massive home crowd on their feet celebrating.
With 2.42 left in the period Joe Greener made it 3-1, finishing from Long and Sheppard. That line was doing the business all night long, pressuring the goaltender hard, nullifying the defence and most importantly scoring.
A couple of big saves from Dean Skinns saw out the first period, the Bison leading 3-1 and justifiably so. They had played the better hockey, they had looked the hungrier team but credit has to go to a short benched Phoenix team who could have so easily found themselves down by a few more at the 20 minute break.
The opening of period 2 was different to the flow of period 1. Bison were fractions away from being 4-1 up as Sheppard drove the puck to the net and Karpov’s finish just crept past on the outside of the left post.
There were chances at both ends of the ice, both goaltenders giving top drawer performances to keep it at 3-1. The Phoenix defence finally came into the game, blocking and tying up advancing Bison players and finally giving Fone the support a goaltender needs.
It was Fone who provided the comedy highlight of a goalless second period when a delayed penalty was outstanding on Joe Greener. With the referee’s arm up Fone headed to the bench for the extra skater but didn’t quite make it as a transition from vertical to horizontal stopped his progress.
Period 2 lacked goals but it didn’t lack skill or intensity. The Phoenix were desperate to not only get back into the game but to cut short to dominance of their opponents.
Period 3 started with the game giving the impression that the next goal would be the winner. It was one of those tight games by now, Bison having the benefits of their earlier excellent play on the scoreboard but Phoenix spending the middle frame fighting their way back into it. A 4-1 margin would have definitely sealed the game in the Bison favour but a 3-2 margin could so easily have fuelled a comeback to take the game to overtime.
Early in the third period Tony Hand went down in his defensive zone and despite his pleading for a call and subsequent disgust at the non call the game continued at 5 on 5. Chances came at both ends, both Skinns and Fone stood tall turning away the chances.
A questionable interference call against Kurt Reynolds put the Phoenix back on the powerplay and that gave them the chance to pull the game closer. As I’d said earlier it was highly possible that the next goal would win the game but it turned out not to be the case. Hand and Kovar sorted out Bakrlik the puck and the big man did the damage again for 3-2 with 11.50 left to play.
With 9.03 left in the game Manchester’s Robin Kovar failed to help his team’s causes with a match penalty for high sticks, bringing down Kurt Reynolds on the far side of the rink. The call took a little while to be made but as Kurt Reynolds disappeared with the medic to stop the bleeding the call was made and Kovar left the ice.
After treatment Reynolds returned to the ice, automatically downgrading the match penalty on Kovar to a 5+game penalty. Tony Hand had a fantastic shorthanded chance but Skinns denied him and at the other end of the ice Joe Baird’s attempt was just off.
With 1.27 left to play Tony Hand called a time-out. The reason was obvious but with the face-off in the neutral zone just clear of their defensive zone they couldn’t risk pulling their goaltender ahead of the next face-off.
Despite the Phoenix winning the face-off they failed to gain any sustained control of the puck. They did gain the attacking zone but quickly turned over the puck meaning Fone couldn’t leave the net. The Bison closed out for the win and took the two points.
The result reflected the game, the margin flattered the Phoenix. They went into the game short benched and Kovar’s ejection put them even more so short. They gave a good account of themselves but Bison gave the better account and deserved the two points.
The worrying thing for the Phoenix is that while Frankie Bakrlik stood out as he always does Johan Burlin was anonymous all through the game. Kovar’s contribution was negligible too. Tony Hand is also no longer the impact player he was before his ankle injury a couple of season’s back.
Basingstoke Bison are heading back in the right direction. Not for a lack of trying they went through a tough patch pre-Christmas. Results weren’t coming, pucks weren’t falling and the luck wasn’t there. It was through no lack of effort but through hard work they’re making their own luck again, pucks are falling favourably, bounces of the boards are heading back the right way and results are coming again. The team are heading back up to the right end of the table!