The 2014/15 regular season is done. Wayne Scholes set out to win the treble in this season and he’s got two of the three trophies already stored in the Telford trophy cabinet.
I must admit I had pretty much expected for this season to be a write off for me. After so long hockey is in my blood I guess but with no team to support this season I was worried whether or not my interest would fade but I’m pleased to say it hasn’t.
The first game I saw this season was Manchester at Bracknell. I then saw Swindon at Guildford before taking in my first Bison game of the season, against Telford.
Having missed pre-season I watched what was a slightly worrying battle in Bracknell where Phoenix ran out winners. What worried me was I was seeing what was traditionally one of the contending teams struggling to put away a traditional lower end of the table team. These worries for both teams would continue through the season.
Guildford vs Swindon was the usual non-emotive affair and then my interest in the season really kick started when I watched Bison take on and beat Tigers.
The whole Bison arena were involved, a decent sized Tigers following were cheering on who many had dubbed already the champions elect but in penalty shots it was the Bison who ran out winners.
The early season table showed some curious positioning with Manchester battling at the bottom, Milton Keynes also in that bottom mix and Guildford struggling mid-table. Flames went on to sack and replace two imports which turned their season around, helping them to contend into mid February before Telford Tigers lifted the league title.
As it turns out 17 points was the Tigers margin over their closest rivals when the final table was compiled. That’s quite a winning margin in a 48 game league and only eclipsed by the 19 point deficit at the bottom of the table between Bees and Steeldogs for the final place in the play-offs.
Manchester picked their season up to finish 6th in the league table but still some way off where they’d have started the season expecting to finish. Milton Keynes tucked in behind them in 7th place but the Buckinghamshire team have many positives to take from 14/15. They have a newly refurbished arena to play in, the envy of most of the league, and are regularly attracting crowds of 2,000+ following a tough season on the road at Coventry in 13/14.
Steeldogs took the final play-off spot with an 8th place finish thanks to 18 wins across the season. In truth their qualification was never in doubt for the play-offs but is a reward for another year of hard work for Andre and his “Made in Sheffield” Brits plus imports. The one disappointment I felt when I saw Sheffield was that Janis Ozolins didn’t seem to be the player I last remembered setting the league on fire in a Steeldogs jersey. Steeldogs draw Tigers in the play-offs for a spot at Coventry but are yet to beat the Tigers this season.
Probably the award for Surprise team of the season goes to the Peterborough Phantoms. Slava Koulikov has worked hard to turn around the Phantoms from a traditionally lower end team to a top 4 finish this season. A huge chunk of that has to be down to the recruitment of Janis Auzins who has backstopped the Phantoms to a very successful season. Darius Pliskauskas has, despite a horrendous elbow injury, completed another 1+ points per game season. Lithuanian Dontas Kumeliauskas has also scored over a point a game. Slava has proved to his doubters that when left to coach his team his way he’s actually really good!
Basingstoke Bison looked to be one of the teams that could push Telford for the title. They had speedy, skilled youngsters, they had proven success based on the season before and had in truth made few changes. It was a poor spell in late November / December that saw them lose their grip on the title chase but a swift recovery after Christmas saw them win 9 consecutive home wins before losing that run in their final regular season game against the Swindon Wildcats.
The Bison have also suffered injuries with Matt Selby not ever recovering fully from the blind side hit he took at Bracknell which resulted in concussion. The biggest injury worry however is that Tomas Karpov hasn’t played a game since a wrist injury in a midweek game at Guildford meaning potentially the Herd go into the play-offs with just 3 imports and at best with 3 game fit imports. Karpov is that important that if he’s ready he should certainly get the nod to play even if he’s not game fit.
Dean Skinns is also crucial to Bison’s hope from here on in. He has been frustrating from my view this season. I’ve been left marvelling at the near impossibility of some saves he’s made but often left bemused at the ease of some saves he’s not made. Skinns is no stranger to the big occasion having backstopped Slough to a play-off win and Basingstoke to the cup and play-off double last season and now is the time to prove that he’s the man for the occasion. He won the 2008 Play-offs with Slough, won a cup with Guildford the following season before a season and 9 games with Basingstoke before being cut and picked up by Swindon where his stats weren’t impressive. His stats this year for the Bison in league action haven’t matched his output from last season but he is the one player on the team with no competition for his spot.
Every forward knows every other forward could easily replace them on a line, every defenceman knows he could be losing his place on a line or even sitting out while a colleague double shifts. Skinns has played all the league matches unquestioned this year. Dan Weller-Evans came to the Bison from the Wightlink Raiders where he had backed up. This season he hasn’t seen a single second of league action from the ice, he’s witnessed the whole league from the bench. He did get started in the Challenge Cup however Skinns has played every minute (except for empty nets) of every league game.
The backup goaltender in hockey is a tough job. You know you aren’t going to see much ice time but you need to keep your spirits up and be ready if the call comes. Sitting on the bench watching sadly doesn’t help the team you’re watching as the goalie that’s playing is well aware there’s no competition for his place. Equally is doesn’t help the goaltender who’s not playing as you don’t develop by watching. Weller-Evans, at 22, has lost a season of development which is a shame for a young player starting their senior career.
The huge financial input at Telford since the Red Hockey Take-over has turned them around. Anyone who thinks different is simply wrong! Yes, Tom Watkins has still had to coach them, yes the players have still had to work hard but with the financial injection came new players adding depth to the squad. No longer were the Tigers a hard working team with a few talented players, they are a hard working team full of talent. The finances also brings other benefits in terms of equipment, more socialable training times etc and all that put together with the on ice benefits means the Tigers were very likely to be successful this season.
At the other end of the table it’s been a struggle. Bees were short in depth at the start of the season, made shorter by Wiggins and Paynter leaving with talked about replacements not appearing. When Watt was released just before Christmas replacements were once again mentioned but by this stage the Bees were more or less a team of NIHL1 standard Brits topped up by a few EPL Brits, with four imports. Radek Hubacek hasn’t been the import anyone at Bracknell would have been hoping for, he simply just doesn’t find the back of the net enough. The one good thing to be coming from Bracknell is the pace at which Vanya Antonov continues to develop. He’s frighteningly talented and would certainly develop even better in a competitive team.
Heading into the play-offs and the quarter finals start the competition with a home and away weekend. As a trophy it’s potentially the easiest to win in sport as you can lift the trophy with just 3 wins!
The match ups are
Telford vs Sheffield
Guildford vs Milton Keynes
Basingstoke vs Manchester
Peterborough vs Swindon
That’s four fairly exciting weekend match ups to look forward to. There are only four places available at Coventry and at this stage it’s almost impossible to pick those final four teams.
One thing is for certain and that’s at whatever stage Manchester exit the competition Tony Hand will have played his last game. He is hanging up his skates and calling time on the most successful hockey career of a British player. Whether it’s at Basingstoke on Sunday or at Coventry the following weekend Tony Hand MBE deserves a rousing cheer as he skates from the ice for the final time.
Enjoy the play-offs