My third and final cover game at Basingstoke saw the Bison take on the Swindon Wildcats. Having seen the Bison win the first two games of my stint I wanted a 3 for 3 record. The win was also important as the Bison are the only team keeping pace with the league leading Telford Tigers. With their Sunday game being at Telford and already a 1-0 record over the Tigers a Sunday win would reduce the gap significantly but of course only if Saturday produced a win too.
As the warm up progressed a decent support base built for both teams. The Swindon Wildcats were well represented by a generous turn out and the Bison faithful certainly didn’t let the home team down. From the moment I first spoke on the microphone to welcome both sets of fans it was clear there was a great atmosphere to be had at the Bison arena.
The visiting team were boosted by the return of the in / out Jonas Hoog who had recently rejoined the Wildcats. Having started the season with Haninge Anchors Hoog was back in Swindon where the fans absolutely love him.
It didn’t take long though for the Bison to take the lead as after just 95 seconds Aaron Connolly finished from Joe Rand and Kurt Reynolds. Connolly is young still, full of speed, enthusiasm, power and skill he plays with maturity well above his years. He can often outskate opponents through his speed but while he does that his skill means he can control the puck as if it were attached to his stick via elastic!
Joe Rand is definitely worth a word too. When he was first signed to the Bison I questioned the signing. I wondered whether or not an NIHL import would cut it in the EPIHL. I was proven very wrong and I now wonder why #86 spent a year obviously playing within himself at the Isle Of Wight as he is every bit the EPL import. He’s a scorer and a play maker, he works hard and he puts up good returns.
Just 1.34 later the goal light behind Stevie Lyle illuminated again as the Bison found the back of the net for a second time. The visitors were saved from 2-0 by the tiniest fraction of a second as the puck was adjudged to have entered the goal after the referee’s whistle had blown.
It was clear by now that the Bison were out to give 100% and push as hard as possible to get themselves into a strong and dominant position. They played periods of the first stanza as if on the powerplay despite no player being penalised such was their dominance while Dean Skinns at the other end enjoyed a relatively easy ride. The majority of the Bison goaltender’s work was puck handling the Wildcats clearances or line change dump ins and feeding them on to start another offensive rush.
At 13.27 Dean Skinns made probably his best save of the night as Aaron Nell had the chance to level the game. Left all alone right in front of the net he only had Skinns to beat but from the very top of the crease he was denied by the Bison goaltender, making the biggest of the four saves he had to make in the period.
As Swindon struggled for consistency they coughed up a 2 on 1 chance that saw the Bison advance towards Lyle but by now for the former GB goalie had warmed up and the chance came to nothing with 4.27 left in the period.
By the end of first period it seemed the basis of the Wildcats game was to dig in deep and deny the Bison the chance to set up and pressure the offensive area. The Wildcats were outshot by 10 in the first period and after a shaky start allowing two in the first 3 minutes (only one of which counted) Stevie Lyle was all that was keeping the Wildcats from being blown out the game.
Back out for period two and this was an altogether different period. Shots still favoured the home team but just by a single shot. Swindon levelled the game after 180 seconds when Tomasz Malasinski finished from Jonas Hoog. Skinns was finally beaten but probably by more a lack of action he had faced than anything else. He was tested just 4 times in the opening period and the second period shot that beat him was early on. We had a game on our hands at 1-1 despite there being a clear dominance in the game.
Buoyed on by their goal Swindon then proceeded to close out the Bison and the remainder of period two passed by scoreless with a combined shot count of just 13.
In the second interval I took the opportunity to have a wander of the arena. Despite the fact it was the interval the rink was alive with a buzz around. I found a 50/50 ticket seller, paid my money and took my chance in winning the £300+ prize that was predicted (I didn’t win!). I then went on to speak to a few supporters and with the clock running out I headed back to the box ready to do my final period.
Fans who had left their seats for the interval returned and the atmosphere cranked back up to fever pitch. Before the game I predicted 5-2 for the home team, Ben had predicted 6-2 but somehow with 2/3 of the game played it was 1-1. The Bison had put on an impressive display at both ends of the ice, the Wildcats less so but were holding the game to a two goal tied match.
Having kept the game tight in the second period indiscipline cost the Wildcats in the third period. Shane Moore made the trip to the penalty box at 44.21 with a tripping penalty to be served and Aaron Connolly stepped forward again to score his second of the night at 46.03. Where the powerplay hadn’t clicked earlier in the game it was Joe Rand who combined with Connolly to set up the goal that the man of the match would complete with 13.57 left to play.
Not the margin I had expected to be splitting the teams by this point but from the game so far and the form book the correct team was back in the lead. While I thought the Bison would win the game I was mindful of the Wildcats beating the Flames 2-4 on Spectrum ice earlier in the season. I think the Bison are stronger in all areas than the Flames, better coached, better drilled, younger, fitter and faster so I still favoured the Bison to down the Wildcats despite their overturn of the Flames earlier in the season.
The teams traded powerplays with Malasinski and Ciaran Long both picking up minors before, with 4.11 left in the game, Shane Moore left in an ugly incident. A check to the head penalty saw him awarded a match penalty resulting in a 5 minute powerplay for the Bison. The penalty was later downgraded to a 5+game for the same offence by referee Roman Szucs.
A major penalty results in a 5 minute powerplay. Unlike a minor penalty which results in a 2 minute powerplay that is cancelled off by any goal being scored a 5 minute penalty can only be finished by its time elapsing. A powerplay goal scored on a 5 minute powerplay resulting from a major penalty doesn’t end the man advantage. Aaron Connolly very nearly completed his natural hat-trick on the man advantage but it wasn’t to be.
With 17 seconds left in the game Grant Rounding was adjudged a hooking penalty and 4 on 4 would be the order for the final 17 seconds. Stevie Lyle was off the ice and the extra attacker in his place but with a matter of seconds remaining the Bison gained control of the puck and sent it to the empty net. The puck was in, the goal light was on, the fans were on their feet but the clock was now showing zero. It will take a replay from the goal camera to see whether the puck was in before the final buzzer but the game was won anyway in a tight 2-1 scoreline.
Dean Skinns faced 16 shots in the game, the Bison rampaged at the other end with 38 shots on Stevie Lyle who saved his team from the thrashing they could easily have taken.
The Bison entered the clash missing Matt Selby and Andy Melachrino, the Wildcats boosted with their returning star Jonas Hoog. On paper the Wildcats line up looks good, Nell and Hoog up front should be an offensive powerhouse but 16 shots doesn’t suggest it worked well at the Bison arena. Skinns was good on 15 of the 16 shots he faced but in truth with the line up the Wildcats have should have he been tested more. Lyle on the other hand was soft in the first few minutes but saved 36 of the 38 shots he faced and had he not been on form then either mine of Ben’s predictions could have easily come true.
Two very tight judgement calls stopped the game from being 4-1 when you consider the disallowed goal in the first period and the disallowed empty net goal at the end which may or may not have entered the net on the right or wrong side of the whistle.
I doubt in the final standings that goal difference between the Bison and Wildcats will be relevant, what’s most relevant is another two points in the bag and a chance for the Bison to head to Telford with the possibility of cutting the affluent Tigers lead.
There happily ended my cover stint at the Bison. I had been entrusted with three games, Bracknell, Milton Keynes and Swindon. I enjoyed thoroughly my 180 minutes of hockey and I had overseen 3 wins.