During the week one of the Telford papers had carried an interview with Sam Zajac where he’d hinted he believed the Tigers still had a chance of winning the league. With the Paul Baldwin Agencies Basingstoke Bison in pole position and the Tigers apparently keen to keep their slim hopes alive the clash at the Basingstoke Arena would be of huge importance with the win putting Bison a step closer but a loss virtually eroding the Tigers slim hopes.
The Bison were missing long term injured Alex Symonds and Grant Rounding with Alan Lack also added. With Tomas Hiadlovsky getting the start Jon Baston would sit out and Joe Greener would serve a suspension. Telford started missing Jason Silverthorn, Jonathan Weaver and Joe Graham. Game officials would see Andrew Gipps and Elliot Marshall run the lines with Tim Pickett being the man in charge.
A packed Bison area watched as the referee called the players together for the opening face-off. Macauley Haywood threw his weight around early with a big hit but Tomas Karpov fed the puck to the net just out the reach of Ciaran Long. Miroslav Vantroba was next to lay off a hit but the first goal wasn’t far away.
After Tomas Hiadlovsky had made a blocker save from Andrei Makrov the puck would fall to Ciaran Long who would dance effortlessly down the ice evading the retracting Tigers and hold the puck long enough to be able to feed the advancing Bison captain, Aaron Connolly, who took a few steps before launching the puck high over Thomas Murdy’s shoulder for 1-0 at 3.27. It was a quality goal that settled the play down early on in favour of the home team.
The first penalty of the game came soon after as Dan Scott picked up an interference minor at 4.58 meaning Bison would get the first chance to use a powerplay but the home team failed to make any inroads before the visitors returned to full strength. Tomas Karpov was setting up Stuart Mogg but Murdy stretched to nullify the chance any deny Mogg to chance to double the score.
Peter Szabo took a seat at 7.28 as he served a hooking penalty and this time the man advantage would count. After a slow start on the powerplay the Bison gained control of the zone and the puck and Rene Jarolin found Declan Balmer who shot the puck and a stick in mid air from Aaron Connolly saw goal 2 as he deflected the puck down into the lower net.
Down by two goals Telford tried to come back but Blahoslav Novak coughed a good chance by firing wide, Sam Zajac saw his shot pass a hair’s width outside the net and then Max Birbraer skilfully skated round the Bison defence but Tomas Hiadlovsky extended his leg and kicked the puck away to safety.
Both sides were laying some quality hits under the watchful eye of Tim Pickett who allowed the game to flow well but then the man with the armbands had to use his whistle to call a slashing penalty on Shaun Thompson.
This powerplay would kick start the fight back by the Tigers with 4.41 left to play in period one but Hiadlovsky was up to everything he faced. A glove save and a blocker deflection saw the main attempts of the powerplay neutralised but as the Bison returned to full strength a Danny Rose shot was all but drained of momentum by Phil Hill’s overly heavy tip in attempt and Hiadlovksy made an easy save and a swift cover up to break momentum.
The remainder of the first period ticked away with no further scoring but the Bison weathered the fight back and ended the first period comfortably the better of the two teams as the scoreboard confirmed.
The second period started with a frenzy as first Rene Jarolin and Kurt Reynolds were denied, then Martin Ondrej suffered the same before Jarolin’s 5 hole attempt was stopped by Murdy.
Tigers were then offered two powerplay chances. Rene Jarolin was off to the penalty box for cross checking at 24.25 and other than a close call where Hiadlovsky was caught out of position behind the net Tigers made nothing of their two minute powerplay. 4 seconds after Jarolin’s return though Ryan Watt was off for hooking and another immediate chance followed for the visitors.
Rene Jarolin and Tomas Karpov tried shorthanded, Jarolin carrying the puck before leaving a neat drop pass for Karpov but Murdy closed the door. Powerplay time then returned to the more conventionally accepted norm as the team with the advantage took to attacking their opponents net forcing a couple of big saves from the Bison shotstopper.
Back at full strength Bison were defending their own zone, with the play behind the goal line Tomas Karpov and Joe Miller were niggling but then the whistle blew and Miller threw down his gloves with virtually no reaction from Karpov. Miller headed to the box for roughing but was joined by Karpov with a matching roughing penalty meaning a period of 4 on 4.
With no clear chances it fell to Aaron Connolly to try and generate something as he chased a puck hard into the zone but this only ended up with Maynard picking up an interference minor and handing the Bison are 4 on 3 advantage. The 4 on 3 became 5 on 4 with no change to the score and when Maynard returned 5 on 5 lasted just 6 seconds before Ondrej would take a roughing minor at 31.12.
Special teams would dominate the second half of the second period. The Bison powerplay saw only one clear cut chance as Ciaran Long’s one timer went just wide of the net but as Tigers returned to full strength Bison would pick up a penalty offering their opponents a powerplay as Declan Balmer served a holding penalty.
Another penalty would end without the score changing and the highlight of the remaining 5 minutes of the middle period would be a huge hip check delivered perfectly by Declan Balmer. Despite a stronger showing by the Tigers in the second period they failed to break Hiadlovsky’s defence and Bison still led thanks to their earlier two goals from the captain.
There was a lot on the line in the third period as both teams were well matched in the second period and the physical level was high an entertaining final period promised.
Karpov was first to try but Murdy covered his attempt and then action swung around with Makrov rushing his shot as he gained the zone and firing over the net. Some great individual skill from Jarolin saw him rob Heywood before feeding Connolly but his shot was dealt with confidently by Murdy.
Chances continued to come, with a Vantroba poke check dealing with a Tigers chance before he then wasn’t involved in what could have been an awesome move. Jarolin sped off down the ice, looked to see Vantroba following him and gained the zone knocking the puck behind him expecting Vantroba to be there to receive the drop pass but the Bison defenceman had headed to the bench for a line change and it fell to the Tigers to clear their zone.
Ciaran Long was in the wars as he was hit by a Zajac shot and as he skated off Zajac had an attempt at his own rebound but this one went wide.
30 seconds short of the midway point in the period Matt Towalski was bundled into the goal post by Marcus Maynard, taking out the Tigers netminder at the same time earning the offending Tiger a 2+10 checking from behind penalty, ending his involvement in the game unless it would go to overtime.
It was all go from the Bison, Aaron Connolly was taken down in front of the net, Ciaran Long’s shot was deflected wide but 1.01 into the powerplay Rene Jarolin did the business and made it 3-0. Bison worked the puck well around the zone and with bodies driving to the net Jarolin seized the opportunity to get the puck and send it home with credit to Stuart Mogg and Ryan Watt.
With Tigers back at full strength they kept their hopes alive as 58 seconds later Dan Davies made it 3-1. Novak did the hard work, receiving the puck from Heywood and skating into the zone but Hiadlovsky saved his chance however Davies was following up and his attempt at the rebound left Hiadlovsky no chance and Tigers were back in the game.
Telford found themselves invigorated by their goal but former Bison Miller would remain pointless when he had a chance close in front of Hiadlovsky but would end up tipping the puck wide.
Bison were still getting the better of the chances but the Tigers were working hard. Pressure told on the Bison when Hiadlovsky cleared the puck but it deflected off the top of the glass and out of play earning him a 2 minute delay of the game penalty.
With 3.37 left in the game Tigers would get the chance to play 5 on 4 but there were good shorthanded chances for the Bison. Thomas Watkins called his team’s timeout with 2.06 left to play and the result was an empty net and a 6 on 4 advantage for the Tigers.
The advantage didn’t last long, and the effect of the time-out was nullified when, straight off a face-off Novak came together with Baird and picked up 2 minutes roughing. Not only did this end the Tigers 6 on 4 advantage but brought the face-off back to the Tigers defensive zone meaning Murdy had to return.
Play resumed 4 on 4 and the game then played out with Bison 5 on 4 once the Hiadlovsky penalty had expired. The home team were good enough to ensure Tigers couldn’t get Murdy off the ice again and the buzzer sounded with a near sell-out Bison crowd on their feet cheering on another 2 points from another home win.
The Bison injury/absentee list seems on a carousel at the moment. Long term injures have kept Symonds and Rounding out, the latter playing only a few games in the season after knowing he’d miss the start and the former also playing only a few games after being a late signing. Ryan Watt returned to the line up but Alan Lack continued to be absent. Where Miroslav Vantroba sat out a suspension a few weeks back this would be Joe Greener’s turn to serve his suspension.
With Symonds and Rounding both being long term injuries it’s easy to plan around their absence but then each weekly absence causes difficulties in the coaching. It’s not just a case of slotting an extra player into the gap because changing one line has a consequence on more than just that line. To fill a gap on the second line, you’ll have to pull from the third line and you then end up with two lesser familiar lines.
Bison put on another comprehensive performance. Being ahead at the top of the table brings with it pressure of expectation. From reading Zajac’s interview in the Shropshire star I had expected more from Telford. They have 4 games on hand in Bison and going into the game were 15 points off the pace but despite the statistics Zajac went on record saying he still believed his team could retain their league title.
Bison worked hard in the opening minutes of the game and got their rewards when Aaron Connolly netted both the first period goals. This put the Tigers on the back foot early on and left them a mountain to climb.
The Captain’s opening goal was a piece of pure skill and speed all round. Ciaran Long knew he was alone when he started his run so he stopped short of entering the zone, dance round the Tigers then started moving again when he saw Aaron Connolly coming along side before off loading an inch perfect pass which Connolly steadied and then shot hard.
The second goal was more good work and backed up the old adage that if you get people to the net good things happen. Balmer blasted the puck towards the net and Connolly got his stick on the puck to deflect a high chance to a low goal.
With the two goal deficit the Tigers needed to open up and take more chances to fight back into the game but despite equalling the Bison for shots in the first period they were clearly the second better of the two teams on the ice.
Credit goes to the officials who let a physical game flow well through the opening 20 minutes. Both teams were playing physical hockey and both were laying off some big hits. Tim Pickett took the view that the teams should sort the game and that the hockey should flow. He wasn’t afraid to penalise when necessary but wasn’t overzealous with the whistle.
The second period saw the Tigers play much better hockey than the opening period. The shots on goal diminished for both teams despite a fair bit of powerplay time. Both teams were good defensively and some good saves were made by the netminding duo.
The third period started sharply with both teams creating offensive chances. It wasn’t until a powerplay chance that Bison enhanced their position with another well taken goal. Good team work got the puck into the zone and around the net and Rene Jarolin saw chaos in front while remaining calm enough to be in the right place to send the puck home.
Credit to the Tigers who fought back almost straight away with Dan Davies pouncing on a rebound to reduce the deficit back to 2. As the game progressed, and after the Tigers time-out and the opportunity for 6 on 4 with an empty net, Novak then completed the most unbelievable play of the game as he jumped Joe Baird for no apparent reason right off the face-off. The magnitude of the stupidity of this is huge as it nullified the 6 on 4 and ended the empty net as well. Instead Murdy had to return to the goal and play was 4 on 4. Equally bad, Novak’s actions brought the face-off from the Bison zone to the Tigers zone and this one crazy play killed off the best hopes the visitors had of fighting back.
After the game Watkins report on the Tigers website was scathing of his team’s performance. He went on to bemoan the absence of Silverthorn but Bison were also without key players. He stated that Silverthorn’s absence created a centreman problem for him yet in Dan Davies he has one of the best British centres in the game. When Davies played for Slough and I had the opportunity to watch him every week he was rarely beaten on a face-off!
It’s easy to criticise the team’s performance and it’s not the first time the Tigers team performance has been outed this season by their coach. Until January 31st Watkins had the chance to action his criticisms by making changes but chose not to.
Ultimately the coach decides the systems and tactics and it’s those that win or lose games and titles. Last night the Tigers played pretty much the same game all the way through to varying degrees of success and after Dan Davies put them back in with an outside chance Novak undid all their prior work!
With Bison having a day off on Sunday it’s a chance for the six team who do play to close the gap but regardless of games in hand the Bison have a points gap at the top now and just need to keep performing.