With the regular season done eight of the nine teams had two more games in them to battle for a place at Coventry in the final four weekend. Play-off hockey is where the intensity steps up massively and the rule book is relaxed slightly. 240 minutes is all that stands between the eventual winner and their trophy, it’s the sport’s shortest competition but the most intense.
Bison finished third in the league and as such drew the choice of home advantage over their opponents, Manchester Phoenix. The first leg ended in Manchester the previous evening with the Bison bringing home a single goal lead, mainly thanks to a two minute spell of three goals in the middle period. The contest was very much alive as the second leg started but it’s always better to start ahead than behind.
Tim Pickett was the man charged with officiating the big game and called the players together to start the match up. Manchester broke first getting a shot which struck the Bison goaltender in the face mask while at the other end Bison had a fantastic opportunity to increase their margin. Good work got the puck to the front of the net where Stephen Fone lost sight of the puck. So many Bison players crowded the net nobody could get the stick on it to force the puck into the goal.
Andy Melachrino fed Tomas Karpov who couldn’t complete his chance before the first powerplay of the night came when a big hit from Michael Wales on Frankie Bakrlik was called as charging. A good penalty kill from the Bison ensured nothing happened with the man advantage.
At 7.41 Phoenix took the lead on the night, levelling the all important aggregate score. Bobby Chamberlain was the man to score, picking up a turnover and firing it top corner of the net.
Not deterred Bison were back in front of Fone’s net and a centring feed from Grant Rounding just didn’t quite find Aaron Connolly advancing to the net but then the dramatic part of the first period came round. Bison once again crowded the net, attempts from Doug Sheppard and Joe Greener both weren’t finished but with the puck sitting lose in the crease and Fone nowhere near it Joe Graham dived in the crease and closed his hand to cover the puck. Tim Pickett awarded a penalty shot which Ciaran Long was to take.
Long picked the puck up from centre ice and skated in quickly, he attempted to beat Fone 5 hole with his shot but the goaltender denied the chance.
At 12.23 Bison levelled the score and re-took the lead on aggregate when some good team work saw Tomas Karpov score. An original shot from Kurt Reynolds was saved but Tomas Karpov picked up the rebounded loose puck, works his way into position and blasted it home past Fone for 1-1.
After a long spell attacking on a delayed penalty the call was finally made giving James Archer a 2 minute hooking call and the Bison a powerplay opportunity.
The 2 minute advantage was worked hard by the Bison but their reward came 1 second after the man advantage had ended, before the penalised player could make an effective return to play. Ciaran Long sent a blast in from the blue line, Joe Greener tipped it in and Bison were now 2-1 on the night and 2 goals ahead on aggregate.
Shots on goal in the first period told the story of the game so far, the Phoenix managing just four while the Bison managed 19. The save percentages also gave an indication toward the rest of the game.
Bison started well in the second as Ciaran Long fed Joe Greener who fed Doug Sheppard and his shot went just wide of the post. The Phoenix didn’t take long to get into gear in either period two when Frankie Bakrlik made it 2-2. Kovar passed to Bakrlik who out waited Dean Skinns, allowing the netminder to go down too early and then casually lifting the puck into the top corner over the left shoulder.
Ryan Watt hit the post at the other end, Ciaran Long was denied by a great stop by Fone and Joe Greener missed a pass from Stuart Mogg before Phoenix scored the game winning goal. Jacob Corson-Heron had the puck fed to him in space before snapping a shot past Dean Skinns. Corson-Heron had plenty of space to work with but equally Skinns had no screen and a perfect view of the shot. The score was now 2-3 on the night and 7-7 on aggregate.
Grant Rounding would leave the game soon after to not return. He took a big hit in open ice and went down, clearly in pain. He was helped from the ice by the Bison medical staff and looked to be in a lot of pain as he left the game.
A tense moment followed for Aaron Connolly when he blocked a shot and couldn’t get back to his feet. The play was stopped and Aaron couldn’t initially gain his feet to leave the ice. He made his way off under his own steam but with weight baring assistance. Fortunately Aaron Connolly would return to the ice, after walking off the injury behind the Bison bench during the next couple of shifts.
Tomas Karpov picked up a hooking penalty, Frankie Bakrlik managed to avoid a holding the stick call and Phoenix got a man advantage.
Phoenix worked their advantage hard and came up with a good goal which would be the weekend winning goal. Robin Kovar would be the goal scorer, Dean Skinns drawn into a couple of saves before the puck came to Kovar who had perfect positioning to slot it home back door behind the Bison goaltender.
Bison were then to lose Declan Balmer to a match penalty for tripping. Balmer and Bakrlik both came together, the Phoenix man coming off worse in the encounter staying down a long time. Balmer took a seat in the penalty box to shortly after learn his fate as he was sent to the dressing room. Bakrlik would leave the ice under his own steam but heavily assisted and take no further part in the period.
The second period ended belonging exclusively to the visitors and they would have 4.39 left of the 5 minute major powerplay at the start of the final period.
Frankie Bakrlik returned to the ice for the start of the final period meaning Declan Balmer’s penalty was downgraded to a 5+game but that would have no impact on the remainder of this game. There was still 4.39 of the 5 minute major to kill. Bison knuckled down to kill off the Phoenix man advantage and with that nullified Bison got a powerplay of their own when an elbowing call was made against Archer.
Again Dean Skinns saw few shots in the final period as Stephen Fone was by far the busier netminder. As the game entered its final 10 minutes Bison needed a goal for overtime to decide a weekend winner or 2 goals to decide the weekend in regulation time. They were given a powerplay at 50.13 when Johan Burlin scooped a hooking minor at 50.13.
Tensions were increasing in the game when Frankie Bakrlik and Nick Chinn collided in front of the net, taking out the Phoenix netminder in the process. The atmosphere was electric as time ticked away, chance after chance came for the Bison but was denied by either a tight Phoenix defence or an on form Phoenix netminder.
With 1.17 left to play Adam Walker picked up a hooking penalty offering the Bison a late powerplay chance to score the goal they needed to take the contest on. Doug Sheppard took the time out and with the face-off to the immediate left of Stephen Fone left Dean Skinns on the bench for the extra attacker.
Bison pressured hard but twice Phoenix cleared their own zone reducing the time the home team had to attack. When the whistle blew with 20 seconds left, and another face-off in the Phoenix end Tony Hand took Manchester’s time-out. Skinns remained on the Bison bench but Manchester closed out for victory and a place at Coventry, ending the Bison’s season.
I guess it’s fitting in a poetic way that Tony Hand should end his career at Coventry and he now has a chance to go for the play-off trophy with the Phoenix semi-final opponents being Milton Keynes Lightning who ousted Guildford Flames, meaning the Surrey side would miss Coventry for the first time since joining the league. The other semi-final will see the so far all conquering Tigers take on the Peterborough Phantoms who won out against Swindon Wildcats.
After the game Tony Hand collected the Man of the Match award and was then presented with a special award by Bison Captain Nick Chinn. Tomas Karpov went on to collect the Bison award in the final game of 14/15.
I had written last week that the Bison’s fortunes depended on two factors. One of those was Tomas Karpov who did in fact return to action following his broken wrist and scored in Sunday’s game. The other was the form of Dean Skinns in the Bison net. Goaltending is the vital position in hockey and the Bison were outplayed in that department. Skinns returned stats of 8 from 55 for 85.45% while Fone returned 7 from 91 for 92.31%. Play-offs are just four games, Manchester could well go on to win the title now having won just 3 games! What that means is that every player has to be at the top of their game for the whole event, and last night, and across the weekend, Stephen Fone was to guide his team through.
Bison had chances on Sunday night that could have seen them blast their way past the Phoenix. The penalty shot, chances in front that went begging but although Phoenix were the lesser team in terms of offensive chances they made the fewer chances they had count. Once they had the lead they needed at the forty minute mark they played a good defensive game for the final period. They collapsed well deep into their own zone, forcing a lot of the Bison shots to be from distance increasing the chances of Fone making the save. When Bison players did get through Fone was equal to their challenge.
The play-offs will now see teams finishing 1st, 4th, 6th and 7th battle for the final honours of the season with teams finishing 2nd and 3rd being those exiting in an “upset”. Teams in 5th and 8th exited according to form. I had felt the Bison had a good chance to successfully defend their play-off title but it’s not to be.
Coventry is almost a trading market with every team represented in some way at the finals weekend and many deals are started, if not completed at Coventry. For Doug Sheppard his priority now will be, if he hasn’t already, to secure the services of his 14/15 Bison he wants to retain for the 15/16 season. I’ve said on Twitter there are a few changes I would make for the new season but they would be just that, a few! I wouldn’t be looking to make wholesale changes and I don’t think the Bison are far away from being in contention for all 3 trophies next season, with a few pieces in the puzzle swapped around for next season they may well having the winning formula but opposition will once again be tough.
2014/15 has given me some great hockey to watch, it’s allowed me to meet new friends and I’m certain I will miss both the hockey and the people over the next five months. To the four teams remaining, I wish you luck at Coventry and to the 1000s of EPL fans about to descend on the Midlands city I hope you have an enjoyable weekend and get to watch some good hockey. Every team there deserves their place, I’m sure the weekend will be high standard hockey. Either someone is going to have to knock Telford out or they are going to complete the treble goal that Wayne Scholes set them last summer.
Happy summer to you all, see you in September.