After a weekend not watching any live hockey I was very much looking forward to getting back to it this weekend, one to watch the hockey and two because I was privileged to have been asked to cover the DJ duties for the Bison.
Armed with a set of tunes I set off along the M4 through the miles of 50mph speed limit before even reaching roadworks where still not a single soul was seen actually working. Heading along the A33 and I was pleased to find the iPod on shuffle pumping me up with a bit of John Cougar Mellencamp as I rounded the penultimate roundup. Reaching the Basingstoke Arena I made my way into the DJ box I used to call home a few years back every Friday night.
One thing stood out to me and that’s how welcoming the Bison have been this season. The fans have taken Ben and I in when we’ve gone to watch and last night the game crew welcomed in to the huge shoes I had to fill.
The opponents for the game tonight were the Bracknell Bees. A team which for all of my 22 years in hockey had always been the local rivals; the team above all we wanted to beat. Away from the ice they’re a great club, Andrew Cross and Ben Beeching are both great guys who are doing a fine job keeping the only professional team in Berkshire running.
On paper the game was a walk over, the Bison sat second in the table and the Bees bottom. The two teams separated by 6 wins for 12 points after just a couple of months of action. Luckily the game isn’t played on paper otherwise teams could just announce their player signings, everyone could predict the final standings and the league would be over before it begins! Before Telford became affluent they were a team that most would have expected points from but despite the huge budget difference they had to every other club (pre Scholes) they provided entertaining games every week and took some big scalps along the way.
With the formalities done it was Stephen Matthews who took charge of the game and dropped the puck at centre ice to get the teams underway. Remember a few weeks back Bracknell had snuck the points when the Bison visited the Hive, so this was the chance for reversal.
Lukas Smital was the first to ping the back of the twine when his powerplay goal put the Bees ahead near the 12 minute mark. It was against the run of play, but a well taken move from the veteran player/coach and worthy of his point.
The first period ended 0-1 and despite Basingstoke clearly being the team in charge it remained at 0-1 as the second progessed thanks to Alex Mettam having a great game in the Bees net. Bracknell were offered the chance to advance to 0-2 when they were awarded a penalty shot and the shot was given to Radek Hubacek. Hubacek picked the puck up calmy from centre ice, headed left and advanced only to see his effort denied by Dean Skinns, a man coming off the back of a double winning season and backstopping a contender for all three trophies this season.
Hubacek had shown confidence of a man heading towards a 100 point season in taking his shot but showed finishing of an import forward who has just 2 goals from 12 outings. He would worry me if I was a coach. Last season he was just shy of a point a game in Czech 2 but this season he is just over a half point a game. In a league where you can only ice 4 imports returns like Hubacek’s are worrying, compounded by the costs of changing an import. I have no idea whether or not the Bees are contemplating a change but as an outsider you just know they’ll be looking for a much better return from the forward than they are currently getting.
Skinns penalty shot save changed the momentum of the game, from that moment on the Bison didn’t look back. The equaliser duly came not long after from Michael Wales. After what clearly appeared to be an icing call was waved off Muzzy got the puck and advanced on Mettam, his finishing was second to none and it was 1-1.
Muzzy is a player you either love or hate but regardless of whichever side of the coin your opinion falls on you have to admire him. He does a job, he plays with heart and soul and he gives so much to every team he plays for, he’s a leader with or without a letter on his jersey, he’s not afraid to scrap if he needs to and he’ll bag some crucial goals.
Within 2.14 Bison swung the game around, Muzzy scored with 1.52 left to the break and with Ryan Watt sitting out a hooking penalty Joe Rand netted at 22 seconds on the other side of the break on the powerplay to put the home team ahead.
The shot difference in the third period was huge, an advantage of 12 shots in favour of the home team and had it not been for Alex Mettam the game would have ended a blow out. Ciaran Long who continues to develop and impress made it 3-1 with 11.20 left in the game, finishing from Joe Greener. He showed so much potential as a youngster but where so many fall by the way side on the transition from fringe player to full squad member Ciaran has proven he was worth the opportunities given to him by the coaches he’s played for so far. He’s every bit the star player I thought he would be when we first saw him at Slough as a 17 year old breaking out of junior hockey.
You could be forgiven for thinking the game was done and the result secured but with 32 seconds left to play and Alex Mettam heading to the bench James Galazzi converted a powerplay to make it 3-2. What followed was probably a huge coaching error but just 4 seconds later Kurt Reynolds buried the game and took the points for his team when Joe Rand won the face off back to the defenceman who found the wide open empty net for 4-2.
I will never understand why Mettam started on the bench for a centre ice face-off. Had there been a face-off in the Bison defensive zone then I could have understood the decision but the gamble Smital took I just don’t think was worth it. Surely having got back in the game at 3-2 it would have made sense to start 5 on 5 with the netminder in place and pull him once they had control of the puck rather than gambling on the face-off knowing the consequences. To me the sensible thing would have been to have Mettam primed to leave, an extra skater ready to hit the ice and ride out the couple of seconds it could have taken to gain control of the puck rather than gambling on an all or nothing scenario with what happened being almost inevitable.
Man of the match awards were chosen by the sponsors, Harvey Stead picking up the visitors award and Ciaran Long scored a goal, assisted another and worked hard all night long justifying his home team man of the match award.
The Bison are so far the only team to keep pace with Telford. There’s a four point difference with a game in hand so a potential two point difference meaning positions could turn in the next meeting between the two teams. Pressure is a huge factor to consider as well, the Bison have been in the contending and winning position before so have experience of how to close out a win, the Tigers are yet to be in that position and until you’re there nobody knows how you’ll react when you get there.
For the Bees it’s a bit worrying. Chris Wiggins has gone, Ben Paynter has gone and aside from Smital and the frighteningly talented Antonov there’s little offensive threat. Hubacek needs to fire, he needs to return better numbers than he currently is as no matter how good Mettam plays at one end if there’s few goals at the other it’s going to be difficult.
The Bison have plenty of offensive threats. There is a balance between youth and experience. Sheppard continues to lead well as both a coach and a player, Chinn brings with him a wealth of knowledge gained across two totally different eras of ice hockey and there’s youthful exuberance of Aaron Connolly and Ciaran Long along with Andy Melachrino and Stuart Mogg. Joe Greener is one of the hardest working power forwards in the league and with Dean Skinns in goal it seems the Bison have the bases covered. They are strong in defence, they are strong up front and they play together as a team.
Both teams face tough Sundays, with the Bison heading to Guildford and the Bees to Telford.