With pre-season complete and a 3-1 record (including 2-0 against the Guildford Flames) it was time for the season to start and the Flames were to be the opponents.
Before the game I was honoured to be part of a presentation to Daren Bavister on his 10th season as the Voice of the Bison. In Ice Hockey there’s two sorts of teams, those that have Bavy and those that wish they had Bavy. He has the knack of saying and playing the right things at the right times, is often infuriating to the away team fans, sometimes infuriating to the officials but he is the best in the business and as every fan of the Stampede will say he’s their voice.
Starting in nets were Tomas Hiadlovsky and Gregg Rockman and the man charged with taking control of the game was Stefan Hogarth.
Basingstoke started well forcing a couple of chances but not quite finishing, the most notable of which was Joe Greener driving to the net for a shot but neither of his linemates could get to the rebound after the initial Rockman save. At the other end Hiadlovsky was saved from having to deal with his first potential chance when Joe Baird’s cheeky poke check interrupted a huge wind up from Marcus Kristofferson leaving him nothing to actually shoot!
With just over half the period played Shaun Thompson bagged the league opener when a neat pass from Tomas Karpov found #13 and with a couple of strides into the zone he wound up, fired and lit the goal judges light. The Bison fans stood to cheer, the goal anthem played and the season was underway. 1-0 at 10.18.
Alan Lack embarrassed Jez Lundin on his way to the net but ended up colliding with the Flames goaltender before taking the net off, earning himself a frosty glare from Rockman and some words from some of the Flames defenceman!
Hiadlovsky flashed the pad to deny a boomer from Marcus Kristofferson and quickly at the other end Ciaran Long tried to repeat the move that Shaun Thompson had scored from but this time it went just wide.
With exactly 5.00 left in the period the Flames clicked into gear, their passing was inch perfect and Towe passed to Karlj who fed Eriksson and Eriksson drew Hiadlovsky one way before scoring the other. It was a good move to beat the Bison shotstopper and secure 1-1.
The goal buoyed the Flames who then set about pressuring their opponents. It was something that hadn’t happened in pre-season as the Bison had pretty much controlled the two challenge matches and then they were forced to soak up pressure. Good teams know when the game isn’t going their way and know to swap into a defensive game and to soak up pressure.
The Flames ascendancy was brought to an end as Lundin took a roughing penalty with 1.04 left in the first period allowing the Bison to wheel out the powerplay unit. Nothing much happened on the powerplay until 19.50 when an awkward hit on Vantroba saw the retaliatory push of Kralj called as roughing meaning the period ended 4 on 4 with the score locked at 1-1.
With the 4 on 4 and subsequent Flames powerplay over period 2 could settle down. During the powerplay the only real chance came from Kevin Phillips but his shot picked out the waiting glove of Hiadlovsky.
Back at even strength Eriksson tested Hiadlovsky but his shot was straight at the padded body of the keeper. The bigger risk came after a careless turnover from Alan Lack allowed Meyers a path to the net but he couldn’t quite finish.
After Flames had enjoyed another period in the ascendancy it was a quick break from the Bison that gave them back the lead. Good structured work in the Flames zone saw Karpov, Vantroba and Watt combine for the second goal as the puck was fed neatly and precisely between the players a slap pass but finished in a sexy move from Ryan Watt in front of the net getting a touch to deflect it in. The goal was initially credited to Tomas Karpov before being changed to give Ryan Watt the 1 in the goals column that he had so badly missed last year.
Now that Watty has that 1 in the column to go with his excellent pre-season I am even more confident we’ll see the return of the Ryan Watt that EPL fans love (or hate if he’s playing against you). He has an all round game of the highest quality and after a difficult 14/15 some had written him off but he has skill, strength and enthusiasm that make him just too good to be finished. With that league goal in his stats now I feel he’ll have the confidence to go back to playing the game he plays best. Last season his time in a poor Bracknell team obviously massively affected his confidence and when you play the way he plays you need to trust in your abilities and to believe in your confidence.
The goal gave back the momentum to the Bison who used it well. Joe Greener and Miroslav Vantroba both tested Rockman and the Flames defence as the game went on to be a bit more open. Both teams were guilty of careless plays, turnovers and coughing up of the puck. Aaron Connolly’s drive to finish his own rebound ended up with the Bison man called for cross checking and the Flames back on the powerplay.
The highlight of the powerplay was probably the highlight of the game and showed the value of the import goaltender. After a couple of chances from Kristofferson, Jens Eriksson was set free heading for the Bison goal but as he tried one move too many Hiadlovsky took a step forward and stretched out his stick hand to poke the puck award from Eriksson nullifying the chance. It was a piece of great skill, done in such a calm and confident manner and at 30.36 Eriksson could justifiably feel he’d been pick pocketed.
Hiadlovsky made a same from Piatak that saw the puck deflect out of play and the powerplay ended with more good work from the netminder as the Flames closed in around the net Hiadlovsky trapped the puck drawing the whistle and ending that period of pressure.
Sam Godfrey picked up a penalty which saw Bison back with the man advantage but the home team failed to take advantage. It’s early season, special teams can take a while to click and sometimes have an off day. Arguably it’s even more difficult to be on a powerplay line than an ordinary line because the man disadvantage to the opposition means they’ll make you work harder than normal to beat them. The Flames put together a good two minutes of penalty killing denying the Bison the chance to make much happen.
With the second period coming to a close there was a bit of a tangle between the players on the buzzer but the officials quickly had things separated and they and both the teams headed to their dressing rooms without any need for penalties.
A week earlier in pre-season at the second interval Bison had held the ascendancy and pretty much had the game tied up. They knew they just had to return to the ice and close out the game. This time, with points on the line, it was different and it’s impossible to start a third period with the intention of closing out from a 2-1 scoreline.
Stefan Hogarth dropped the puck to get the third period underway and almost immediately Eriksson was testing, but not beating, Hiadlovsky. There was luck at the end of the ice as a Karpov shot beat Rockman and trickled past him but just went wide of the net.
Eriksson took advantage of a delayed penalty chance but, after beating the goaltender, was denied by the metal work as the puck rung off the post, followed by Joe Baird being dismissed for a couple of minutes for hooking. With the man advantage Flames set about nullifying their deficit and Piatak was first to come close only to see the Hiadlovsky stick save his attempt. Phillips found himself denied as an extended pad took away the whole bottom of the net. Eriksson and Kralj both found themselves robbed by Hiadlovsky as he turned in a fantastic performance.
A huge hit by Ryan Watt on Tom Duggan interrupted the Flames attack before Kralj made his way through to the net only to be denied at the goal line again.
Ciaran Long sent away a speculative effort from his own defensive zone to Rockman who only just recovered as JJ Pitchley sped off to chase the rebound. In his efforts Pitchley was taken down, taking down Rockman but despite Kralj being the man who forced Pitchley over Rockman the Flames decided blame lay squarely with Pitchley and a “discussion committee” quickly formed around the incident.
Lundin took a boarding call at 51.24 but the Bison failed to capitalise on the man advantage. They just couldn’t get the systems going and the two minutes ended with barely a chance. Watt and Kristofferson had collided, the Flames man going down and staying down with pressure in his zone but was quickly up and off again once the whistle had blown to stop play.
The goal that could have come did eventually come at 54.53, with 5.07 left to play pressure around the net led to the equaliser which eventually came from Kevin Phillips. Hiadlovsky made a save, and another save and with nobody in a position to clear Phillips attempt was too much and it was 2-2.
In fairness to Hiadlovksy, who could arguably have been an excellent candidate for the Man of the Match award, it’s acceptable to expect your goalie to save a rebound chance but after making two quick saves he’d be hoping his defence would clear the puck allowing him the time to regain position and composure. The goalie made two saves but Phillips had the third effort and that one was just too good.
Tension mounted as regulation closed out. Both teams played cautiously, more so than they had to this point and it was almost apparent that focus number one was to secure the point for tying at the end of regulation.
With the 60 minutes ticking away and the buzzer sounding the teams shared a point each after what had been a terrific comeback from the visitors. Bison had looked by far the better team in the first period but Flames fought back into the game and by the third period had double the shots that the home team had.
New for this season is three on three overtime. With an import in goal it means the Bison have the choice to either pull the goaltender and offer sudden death to the inexperienced Dan Weller-Evans or they stick with Hiadlovsky and use all Brit outskaters. For the Flames, with Rockman in nets they had the opportunity to ice an outskating import and still stick within the 3 Brits on the ice rule.
The extra open ice changed overtime. No longer was it the tactical, cagey play of the past but a run and gun style of play. With just 3 outskaters there’s less opportunity to impede your opponents once they start a run and duly overtime was end to end. Hiadlovsky kept his team in it with a huge save and then with 1.45 played of the sudden death period the game ended thanks to the Bison game winning goal.
Ryan Watt stepped forward to provide Kurt Reynolds the opportunity to seal the win and Reynolds duly did just that, roofing the puck high over the shoulder of Rockman and forcing a home team celebration.
It had been a good performance from both teams. Bison had started well and then weathered a Flames counter attack well. During the brief period of OT they had played a clever game, waiting to seize their opportunity. For the Flames they had weathered an impressive Bison opening before coming back strong into the game. They’ll be sad to have lost the game following their good comeback.