Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 20/9/14

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 3-2 Manchester Phoenix

Long pp                      Kovar

Greener pp                  Psurny

Melachrino pp

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Clip those wings: The Bison headed into the game still without Michael Wales whose recovery from his ankle injury continues. The Phoenix only scratched Declan Ryan with Steve Fone the only Phoenix netminder to travel.

Fans had gotten used to games between the two sides bringing excitement and this one started off with a bang as the visitors took an early lead. It seemed to come out of nowhere; Robin Kovar took the pass from Shaun Thompson across the blueline, made a move and just rocketed the puck past the glove of Dean Skinns. With only 21 seconds on the clock, there were some nervous looking faces in the home crowd.

The Bison went for an immediate response, Andy Melachrino’s shot being swallowed up by Stephen Fone and the Phoenix quickly found themselves on the powerplay after Declan Balmer was rightly called for hooking. The Phoenix powerplay unit at full strength got good puck movement but the Bison penalty kill units did an admirable job.

The Herd got to the end of the Balmer penalty without an addition to the score and soon were given their own opportunity to strike. With the puck on the boards at the blueline in front of the Bison bench, the players clamoured to try and take advantage but in the scuffle, Frankie Bakrlik was called for hooking sending the Bison to the powerplay.

The Herd’s man advantage didn’t start well as a poor turnover gave Michal Psurny a free shot at goal but Dean Skinns’ saved the host’s blushes with a flash of the glove.

The Bison’s powerplay just didn’t seem to be clicking in the early going but a fortuitous bounce brought the Herd back onto level terms. With the puck in the Phoenix zone, Bison won the puck back. Joe Greener fed Ciaran Long and with Fone being screened by his own defenceman the former Phoenix man found the back of the net at 06:05.

The Bison were soon back onto the powerplay when Shaun Thompson’s hit on Miroslav Vantroba was called as boarding but there was no joy to be had as Fone in the Manchester net was keeping a variety of shots at bay; the best coming when Greener fed Sheppard from behind the net but the Bison player/coach’s shot was stopped in spectacular style.

The game was beginning to take on the usual style of Bison vs Phoenix encounters with end to end action and chances through the middle section of the period. The Phoenix were the next ones to get the big opportunity when Vantroba was called for slashing but again the Bison penalty kill held firm. Robin Kovar was knocked to the ice by a massive hit by Kurt Reynolds, the Czech forward incensed with the lack of call from Mr Thompson feeling he was elbowed but the referee was unsympathetic to Kovar’s protestations.

The Bison had a powerplay chance soon afterwards, Luke Boothroyd sent to the box for slashing on Tomas Karpov when he’d been beaten for pace but this time the Phoenix’s penalty killing was of a high quality and with Fone standing on his head, the Bison could still not find a second way through the EPL all star netminder.

Joe Greener had the last good chance of the period when he got the step on James Neil and made a customary charge on net but the Phoenix backstop stood strong and the first period ended 1-1 which on the balance of play was a fair score.

The second period started at a pace even more blistering than the first. The Bison had the first real chance when Joe Graham slipped which gave Aaron Connolly a run at Fone but the Bison man fired high of the net.

The Bison were the team creating the better chances but just couldn’t seem to find that final touch. Doug Sheppard had a shot saved and a centring feed rebounded off of Joe Greener over the crossbar. The pressure around Fone mounted and as everyone battled for the puck, Luke Boothroyd was called for holding and the Bison had another powerplay chance.

The Bison were getting good puck movement but at times it seemed like Fone would be the unsolvable puzzle, he was seeing everything from all angles. The Bison moved the puck and teed up Vantroba for the blast but it was easily handled by Fone. It would need a little something special to crack the Phoenix netminder. With the puck behind the net Melachrino fed Joe Greener who found the smallest of gaps that only he could see from and the puck squeezed through and over the line at 24:10 to give the Bison a 2-1 lead.

The Phoenix had a chance to get back on level terms moments later. Ben Wood levelled Aaron Connolly with a big hit. The Bison man was fine and got straight back up but exuberance to get back into the fray saw him called for slashing.

In amongst all the excitement of the game and the back and forth, Robin Kovar was still an unhappy man. Still feeling aggrieved at Reynolds having not been called for elbows on the hit in the first period Kovar was still chatting with Mr Thompson who, in the middle of the Phoenix powerplay, stopped play to give Kovar a misconduct penalty. The Phoenix forward was only further incensed and made his feelings known to Mr Thompson who subsequently gave Kovar a game misconduct and the Phoenix goalscorer’s night was done after 25 minutes.

The Bison kept the pressure on; a two on one opportunity was broken up superbly by Luke Boothroyd. Nicky Chinn got an inch of space and his shot rebounded off of Chinn but Connolly couldn’t get his stick on the puck to tap home.

Shortly afterwards the Bison had the puck in the net and the home crowd rose to their feet in celebration. Some good work from Andy Melachrino found Tomas Karpov who slotted home but the joy was short lived as Mr Thompson emphatically waved the goal off, deciding the puck had been played with a high stick to the fury of the home crowd.

The speed at which the game was being played was leaving the crowd as out of breath as the players. Psurny got round his man but his effort was saved by Skinns, Bakrlik did some great forechecking and fed the man pinching in but that too couldn’t beat the Bison goaltender. Tomas Karpov went for one of his winding runs but Fone was again equal to his efforts.

Then out of nowhere, Johan Burlin was down on the ice. It appeared he was hurt and was helped off the ice before he visibly hobbled to the room but reports range from a recurrence of an ankle injury to a broken skate blade. Either way, the Swedish defenceman who had been a rock at the back during the game was off the ice and would not return. The Phoenix were now down to two imports.

The second raced to its end; Adam Walker had a big drive stopped by Skinns and the Bison engineered another 10 man scramble for the puck in front of Fone but when the hooter sounded it was the Bison still leading 2-1 on the scoreboard.

The final period didn’t start well for the Bison when Joe Baird took a tumble and was down on the ice quite obviously hurt. Baird was up and off under his own power as play continued favouring his arm. He did return to the game eventually but it was a worrying moment.

The Bison had a couple of good chances through Ciaran Long and Tomas Karpov before Kurt Reynolds was called for cross checking as he attempted to dispossess Jacob Corson-Heron. For all the frustrations the Bison were having with Fone, the Phoenix suffered likewise as well with Skinns who denied them on the ensuing powerplay.

The game had lost some of its pace, both sides having seemingly gone through the second at such a rate that the tanks were both close to being empty. This didn’t stop the chances coming however. James Neil’s stickcheck denied Tomas Karpov, James Archer and Ben Wood were denied by Skinns.

The game was very tightly poised and despite being 2 imports down, the Phoenix were still threatening against a Bison team that appeared to be running out of steam.

The Phoenix didn’t help their cause when Frankie Bakrlik was called for slashing and the Bison made the Phoenix pay. Some neat passing saw the puck go quickly from Greener to Karpov who fed Andy Melachrino in front of Fone. Melachrino took a touch then slotted the puck home at 52:25 for a 3-1 Bison lead.

Then in a minute the Phoenix had their second. Manchester pressed right off of the faceoff after Melachrino’s goal. The visitors cycled the puck and James Neil’s shot from the blueline popped off of the pad of Dean Skinns to an unmarked Michal Psurny who only had to tap home at 53:26 to bring the league champions within a goal.

A game that had little of the rough stuff of last week’s encounter saw a few pushes and shoves; with Rand having been called for charging, Balmer and Bakrlik took a shot at each other. The offsetting crosschecking penalties were pretty much the extent of the game’s extracurriculars.

The Phoenix were still causing the Bison a number of problems and took their timeout to consider their options. Despite being on the back foot, the Bison weren’t going quietly as evidenced when Tomas Karpov hammered Joe Graham into the boards to the surprise of the Phoenix defenceman and most of the crowd.

Then, a scary moment. Frankie Bakrlik had arguably been the Phoenix’s best player all night and wanted to try and find the equaliser for his team. He charged down the central channel but was greeted by Miroslav Vantroba. The Bison’s Slovak defenceman stuck out the hip and Bakrlik was sent cartwheeling over Vantroba’s back before landing in a heap on the floor, clipping Joe Rand as he went by. Bakrlik remained motionless for a few moments before being helped off the ice to a loud round of applause, the crowd happy that the injury wasn’t more serious.

Understandably the game went a bit flat after that. The Phoenix looked for an answer but when Joe Graham was called for kneeing as he tried to impede Andy Melachrino’s progress with 30 seconds to go, there was no chance to pull Fone. Time ticked down and the Bison’s unbeaten start to 2014/15 continued.

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

All the right reasons: After all the hullabaloo surrounding last week’s game, it was good for all concerned that this game was played as the majority of Bison/Phoenix encounters are; high tempo, high intensity, high quality hockey games. There’s always a physical undercurrent but it never boils over.

Joe Greener got the man of the match award which was acceptable to myself and many in attendance. The player/assistant coach was virtually unstoppable at moments against Peterborough and was on fire again tonight. He was a constant, focussed threat and there was a feeling that he would score at some stage during proceedings as the line of Joe, Doug Sheppard and Ciaran Long continues to cause havoc for the opposition. The rewarding of Joe with the beers is arguably just reward given he would almost certainly of gotten them the week before had they not been cancelled for obvious reasons. Greener now stands at 4 goals and 3 assists in 2 games. Whilst he is unlikely to maintain a 3.5 points per game average across the season, the Bison need to make the most of this rich vein of form.

Kurt Reynolds again was an utter rock at the back and again seemed to be able to turn his way out of everything and anything. The whole defence (bar Brendan Baird who I didn’t see ice) were an impressive unit. It was a much more composed performance from Matt Selby as the usual high pressing that the Bison employ was scaled back a bit given the pace of the Manchester attack. Declan Balmer is going to be a player that we only notice when he’s either scoring or making a mistake so his quiet game was a job well done. Miroslav Vantroba’s hip check on Bakrlik had an unfortunate outcome but was textbook. The status of Joe Baird’s arm is unknown.

Dean Skinns had a decent game in net though will be displeased with the first goal given it went it past his glove so early. He recovered well and looked very solid, especially at the end with his teammates running on fumes.

The Bison probably shaded the game on balance of performance, the second period being what some people called the most exciting they’d seen the Bison play at home for some time. The pace was off the chain (obviously helped by a very fluid Phoenix side) but the Bison dominated the middle period and at times looked frightening. If any team gives the Herd a chance to play like that, they will be in trouble. The quality of the special teams play has to be pleasing to Doug Sheppard as well; 3 powerplay goals against the league champions and the win is a mark of a side in full flow. To be doing so this early is an encouraging sign.

A word on our opponents: Phoenix fans will instantly worry about the injuries to Johan Burlin and Frankie Bakrlik after last night. If Burlin’s is just a broken skate blade that couldn’t be replaced then that’s less of an issue. The big Swede looked very good though it’s obviously hard to make a full judgement given he didn’t play for a massive chunk of the game but he looks decent. He’s certainly a different player from Robert Schnabel but if he settles fully will surely be an asset.

I’ve bemoaned Frankie Bakrlik on this blog on occasion but he was superb for the Phoenix last night up until his point of injury. Always looking to make something happen, Bakrlik never looked like he was going to be the man to score but rather set up the eventual play. His size and skill make him a handful but the way his game ended will obviously make people nervous about his status tonight against Sheffield.

Stephen Fone got the man of the match beers and that was understandable. 41 saves, 21 of them in the second period alone kept Manchester in the contest when arguably they could have been well out of it by the second buzzer. He seemed to be seeing the puck from all angles and was beaten when his defence was stretched and had minimal chance to do anything. It’s good for the Phoenix he did so, the absence of Declan Ryan meant that Fone had no choice but he certainly stood on his head.

Despite the loss Phoenix fans should take heart from this performance. Imports down, on the back foot for chunks of the game, the league champions were resolute in not going quietly into the night. When the Bison were looking tired in the last ten minutes was arguably the chance for the Phoenix to strike and level the scores but they just seemed to lack something. Whether it was the extra players or just that spark that maybe Kovar could have provided had he not decided arguing with the referee was a better idea than playing, we’ll never know.

Two weekends into the season and only 3 points from 6 might wobble some of the Phoenix faithful but it’s too soon for such things. This is a roster still bedding in. Their time will come, I’m disconcertingly sure of such things.

Lowlight of the night: The injury to Bakrlik; never nice to see.

Highlight of the night: The goals were all lovely but I’m going to say a tie between Kurt Reynolds in general and Karpov’s hit on Graham. Where’s he been hiding that?


The BOTW Podcast – episode 2

We’re back with episode two of the only podcast we’re aware of putting all of the EPL front and centre…mainly because we’re the only ones crazy enough to do it!

I go solo this week to go through last weekend’s results, discipline in the EPL and the EIHL, look at the first rumblings from the IHUK review and look to the weekend ahead.

Remember to subscribe to The BOTW Podcast on iTunes HERE (go on, leave us a rating) and make sure you let us know what you like on Twitter or the BOTW Facebook page once you’ve listened.

The BOTW Podcast; the news and views from the EPIHL, all levels above, below and inbetween.

P.S. Despite my best efforts, the volume is a little low in a couple of places.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs Peterborough Phantoms 13/9/14

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 6-4 Peterborough Phantoms

Greener x3 (1xpp)        Bebris

Karpov pp                    Baranyk x3 (2xpp)

Vantroba pp

Long

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Off and running/fighting: The Bison headed into the game still without Michael Wales, his ankle injury still keeping him from the roster. The Phantoms had Sam James (wearing Lane’s shirt) as the backup to Janis Auzins.

The two teams traded early chances before the Phantoms got an early powerplay, Joe Greener called for slashing just after the two minute mark however the visitors couldn’t find a way past Dean Skinns. The physicality level was ratcheted up early when former Phantoms defenceman Declan Balmer hammered Cameron McGiffin at the Bison blueline which drew a crowd. Balmer was called for interference and Greg Pick took a roughing penalty for his part in the ensuing scuffle.

That appeared to give the game something of a niggly undercurrent. The travelling Peterborough fans were screaming for a penalty when Joe Greener lost his balance and fell into Auzins in the Phantoms net but no call was coming. The Phantoms however got a measure of revenge a few moments later; the Phantoms put pressure on the Bison net and handily stretched the defence when a turnover fell to Edgars Bebris. The former Sheffield man had his initial shot saved by Dean Skinns but the Latvian born forward was on hand to pot the rebound at 07:35.

The teams traded more penalties; Balmer was called again for interference on a hit and Edgars Apelis was called for tripping. Moments later there was another coming together; Auzins slashed out at a Bison forward which drew a crowd and saw the Phantoms goalie given a penalty. As the Bison pressed on the ensuing powerplay, they dug at the loose puck which saw another coming together of players with Auzins getting in the face of the Bison players in front of him. Joe Rand, Ciaran Long, James Hutchinson and Tom Norton all took offsetting roughing minors.

The Bison continued on the powerplay and eventually were given their reward; the pressure from the Herd was maintained and just after the powerplay expired, some neat passing from the hosts found Joe Greener alone to the keeper’s left where he tapped in the feed from Andy Melachrino at 12:16.

The Bison were back on the powerplay minutes later when Luke Ferrara was called for interference. A Kurt Reynolds shot was tipped by Nicky Chinn but Aaron Connolly couldn’t bury the chance. The Phantoms had a good short handed chance through Darius Pliskauskas but Dean Skinns was equal to the task.

Chances came and went as the period wound down, the best falling to Grant Rounding who was set free alone towards Auzins’ net but the Latvian made a crucial save. The Bison also had a late powerplay when Alan Lack was called for high sticking Connolly after the Bison man had checked him but the Bison couldn’t find the way through. The first period ended with the score tied at 1-1.

The Bison were given another powerplay chance early in the second when Will Weldon tripped Ciaran Long behind the Phantoms net and the visitors were soon punished. Tomas Karpov fed Greener in the slot and his shot went zooming over the glove of Auzins at 21:36 and the Bison had wrestled the lead back.

Dean Skinns was called into action almost immediately as the Phantoms pressed for the equaliser but the tide of the period was firmly with the Bison. A turnover in the neutral zone gave Ciaran Long a chance but it was an easy glove save for Auzins. However the Phantoms netminder had no answer for the next real Bison attack. Doug Sheppard reached into his back pocket and pulled out some very soft handed moves to dance through the Phantoms defence and fed a pass to an unmarked Greener who one timed the puck through Auzins’ 5 hole at 25:49 to complete a natural hattrick and give the Bison a 3-1 lead.

The Phantoms netminder was clearly getting frustrated as was evidenced moments later. A stretch pass sprung Rand and Chinn on the two on one. Rand passed to Chinn but the Bison captain couldn’t find a way past Auzins. As players crowded around the net, Auzins wasn’t pleased with the intrusion and facewashed Rand with his glove but no call was incoming from Mr Cloutman.

If anything, this riled up the Bison and the Rand, Chinn, Connolly line went into crash and bang mode to make a point. Unfortunately for Luke Ferrara, he was caught behind his own net with his head down and a thundering but clean hit from Rand left its mark and play was stopped as Ferrara was face down on the ice. Ferrara was eventually up under his own power and returned to the game once he’d shaken off the cobwebs.

The Bison’s dominance of the period continued. Grant Rounding stepped into the way of an outlet pass and fired a shot but it didn’t trouble Auzins. Shortly afterwards, the Bison had yet another powerplay when Tomas Karpov was clipped high by the stick of Jason Buckman. The powerplay produced some good chances for the Bison as some good work in tight from Greener saw him nearly stuff in his fourth goal of the night. He would have to be content with the assist however as he cycled the puck round to Vantroba who fed the puck into Karpov’s wheelhouse and last season’s top scorer open his account for the campaign with a devestating slapshot that went through Auzins’ pads at 29:58 for 4-1.

The game seemed to be losing some of its edge but the Bison still kept going forward, seeming to want to put the boot in and Ciaran Long’s shot that rang off of the post seemed to be proof positive of that.

The teams traded penalties again; Brendan Baird picking up a holding penalty as the teams battled in the corner and Milan Baranyk for boarding then in the dying seconds a clash between Karpov and Koulikov resulted in a tripping call for the Phantoms’ player/coach so the Bison would have 31 seconds of a 5on3 at the start of the third period when the one second of Baird’s penalty had expired.

The Bison used that advantage and made them pay, with Greener tallying his 5th point of the night. The cycle got going on the powerplay and Greener fed the puck off the half boards for Miroslav Vantroba to drive past Auzins at 40:32.

Both teams were having their chances to add to the scoreline; Stuart Mogg got a step on his man but had his shot saved. Apelis had a shot from the blueline snatched from the air by Skinns. The game regained its edge as the teams were throwing decent hits, the biggest being by Alan Lack on Joe Baird and out of nowhere both sides got a goal.

The Phantoms put the pressure on the Bison and stretched the defence with the Herd’s players at the end of their shift. Milan Baranyk had the step on Cameron Wynn, took the pass from James Ferrara and shot past Skinns at 46:36 for 5-2.

The Bison took 19 seconds to respond; Ciaran Long forced a turnover, sprinted towards Auzins, made a move and poked it home at 46:55 for 6-2.

And then at 50:03 it all went crazy.

Brendan Baird laid a hit that saw the arm of Mr Cloutman go up just as Grant Rounding was set free racing towards Auzins. The whistle was blown and Auzins, for reasons known only to himself raced out of his net at Rounding which drew a crowd. Greg Pick dived into the fray and saw hit to challenge everyone on the ice and then the Bison bench. Joe Greener was jawing back and forth with Pick and the discussion went back and forth in front of the Phantoms bench. A punch was thrown at Greener who dived into the Phantoms bench and away they went; clashes on the bench, clashes on the ice. Pick and Selby fought at centre ice as others paired off and there was much scrapping.

Mr Cloutman sent both teams back to the room to sort out the penalties and try to calm things down. The end result was match penalties for Greener, Selby, Pick and Auzins, Ciaran Long got 2+2 for roughing as did Alan Lack but Long was also given 2+2+game for leaving the bench. Grant Rounding got a misconduct and Brendan Baird two minutes for the initial charging penalty.

So the Bison returned to the ice but where were the Phantoms? Slava Koulikov came out and had a very intense conversation with Mr Cloutman and Doug Sheppard. It looked as if the Phantoms were refusing to come back out but they were persuaded otherwise. The upshot of it was Sam James in net for the Phantoms and the Bison on a 4 minute penalty kill.

When Declan Balmer was called for roughing to make it a 5 on 3 powerplay, the Phantoms struck. Milan Baranyk made it 6-3 at 52:07 when the puck deflected off of Skinns and he batted it out of the air. The Phantoms’ Czech forward completed the hattrick a few seconds later when the puck was turned over behind the Bison net and the pass came to Baranyk who fired past Skinns from the top of the crease at 52:41 for 6-4. The Bison players and fans were furious as it appeared first Reynolds then Skinns were being impeded but Mr Cloutman was unmoved.

The Phantoms were given another penalty when Karpov was called for highsticking Cameron McGiffin but there was no way through Skinns in the Bison net.

Time ticked on and the Phantoms called their timeout. James stayed on the bench and the Phantoms went to all out attack to try and get the two goals needed to tie the game. When Vantroba was called for hooking with 49 seconds to play, it seemed like the tide would turn against the Bison but the penalty killing unit stood firm and the final buzzer went to signal the Bison’s first win of the 2014/15 season as the man of the match awards were abandoned whilst off ice officials Mike Downer and Denise Mogg valiantly tried to get the gamesheet into order.

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Well, that was different: So that wasn’t what we were expecting. Let’s deal with the fun bits first. Having gone behind early, the Bison responded well and Joe Greener’s 3+2 made him the standout of the game and he should have got the man of the match beers…had we had any. His hattrick was well taken though his final goal really needs all credit to Doug Sheppard who danced around the Phantoms defence like they weren’t there. The Phantoms had no effective answer for the line of Greener, Sheppard and Long and couldn’t compete with the Bison 5 on 5. When the Bison realised that, we got the second period which was as dominant as I’ve seen the Herd play in a while.

The other player who really bares mentioning is Kurt Reynolds who showed right off the hop why he’s a league all star. He remained composed in amongst all the insanity of last night. Positionally superb and still has that great talent of always coming out of the corner with the puck.

It was a solid team performance. Dean Skinns had a decent game in goal and couldn’t have done much about any of the goals that went in. In the dying moments with all the pressure on him, he stood firm aided by some quality penalty killing particularly from Sheppard, Joe Baird and Stuart Mogg who appears to be carving out a useful niche for himself on that part of the special teams.

The grind line of Rand, Connolly and Chinn also looked dangerous though held off the scoresheet. Rand’s hit on Ferrara was a textbook hard check that saw most of the crowd wince.

It was a decent overall performance for the Bison and something to build on that the systems of last season still work.

As for the brawl; I have no idea what Joe Greener was thinking diving into the bench to go at Koulikov and those who took penalties need to be held accountable for their actions, rightly so. The Bison don’t need to be losing top end Brits to game and match penalties off such incidents nor should our assistant coach be front and centre in such things. Sure, these massive fights are exciting but the point is to win a game of hockey, not recreate the Battle of Helm’s Deep and I would guess that Doug Sheppard was not happy at such things. Matt Selby, who is a known lover of a scrap had a cut under his eye and a smile on his face the size of the arena though we could do without him taking too many match penalties across the season. I have no idea as to why Rounding took a misconduct for what happened. It’s being reported that he shot after the whistle which if he did, I didn’t see though I am but one man.

Ciaran Long though said it best on Twitter after the game; 2 points in the bag and that’s what matters.

A word on our opponents: Let’s get the hockey stuff out of the way first. Whilst I feel the scoreline flattered the Phantoms a bit, there’s some decent potential in that side. When he wasn’t getting thrown out, Janis Auzins seems a more than competent goalie at this level. There wasn’t a massive amount he could have done about the Bison goals and made some really top level saves.

Milan Baranyk also looks like the top level import that I and many others expected him to be. It is a shame that his debut hattrick will get lost in amongst the other antics of last night but if he continues on a similar vein then the Phantoms have got a real high quality scoring threat. On defence I particularly thought Cameron McGiffin looked very handy. Obviously playing on a Slough side that wasn’t at real EPL strength meant it was hard to see his full talent but he truly does have a future as an EPL player.

The issue for the Phantoms was two fold. The larger issue was that they couldn’t find an answer to Greener’s line which put them on the back foot so much that when other lines were on the ice they couldn’t find a way to really get back into the game. It’s obviously game 1 of a long season but if the Phantoms are going to improve their lot from last season, they need to find effective ways to shut down other teams’ top scoring lines or they will struggle greatly. They have the firepower in Baranyk, Pliskauskas and others but if you’re losing games 6-4, 5-4, 4-3, you’re still losing games and that needs to change.

The other thing they need is to get Janis Auzins to calm down. When you have a keeper who is clearly that good, you don’t need him unnecessarily flying off the handle like he did on several occasions last night. Were the Bison in his face a bit? Yes, this is ice hockey. That’s what happens. You can’t have your number one goalie taking slashing penalties and charging out of his crease to take on opposition forwards. He’s 23, some may put it down to youthful exuberance but Auzins will quickly become a liability if he doesn’t get his temper under control.

As for the brawl, there are certainly two sides to the story and as I addressed above those Bison who played their part need to be punished as should the Phantoms players. As I’ve been writing this piece, this article (http://www.peterboroughtoday.co.uk/sport/ice-hockey/ice-hockey-news/officials-blasted-as-phantoms-go-down-fighting-1-6298130) has just appeared on the website of Peterborough Today in which is appears, at least publicly that Slava Kouliov is accepting no responsibility for his team’s part in what happened last night. Not Auzins’ outbursts, not Greg Pick challenging the Bison bench and his clear incitement, not his own actions where he nearly pulled his team out of the game. Now we have to take media reports with a pinch of salt and Slava Koulikov is well within his rights to complain to the league about the officiating last night and the game should be examined; there was a bench clearing brawl after all but it takes two to tango and for the Phantoms coach to seemingly absolve his team of all blame in the public sphere might be admirable but it’s also utterly disingenuous given what we saw.

The true shame is that this Phantoms team actually look decent and have potential to do some damage across the season. If they play like last night, that will quickly get lost.

Lowlight of the night: No prizes for guessing really, the actions of Auzins were just petulant.

Highlight of the night: Greener’s hattrick goal, Soft Hands Sheppard is in the building.

"Hurray! I'm the hero!" (c) 5 Hole Photography

“Hurray! I’m the hero!”
(c) 5 Hole Photography


Standing In The Way – Peterborough Phantoms 2014/15

Peterborough Phantoms

Home Ice: Peterborough Arena

Last season: 9th

Tickets: Link

Spirit squad; Phantoms player/coach Slava Koulikov will be hoping his new look Peterborough roster can better last season's 9th place finish. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Spirit squad; Phantoms player/coach Slava Koulikov will be hoping his new look Peterborough roster can better last season’s 9th place finish.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Team preview: Dan Breen, host of Centre Ice Tuesdays from 6pm-8pm on Peterborough City Radio

Last season in a nutshell:

Last year was a disappointment overall, alleviated a great deal by the post – Christmas performance. The change of coach, bringing in former Slough Player/Coach Slava Koulikov and resulting change of style got us to within a point of the play offs, and despite losing out to Bracknell, the season ended well.

The off season began unhappily for some fans, the announcement of various players leaving the club, names like Damien King, Lewis Hook, Erik Piatak and Marcel Petran and others departing. However, the summer signings started we saw unknowns coming to these shores, Forward Milan Baranyk, D Man Edgars Apelis and Netminder Janis Auzins, as well as some unexpected signings such as Edgars Bebris and development coach Lee Elias, a former US College player/Coach with a record of winning silverware under his belt. Confidence began to rise and a surprisingly large number of people attended both the teams first training session and the Meet The Players Night.

That confidence gained a further boost when the Phantoms faced the relatively unprepared Elite League Hull Stingrays gaining a 6-3 win. This could have been a false dawn as the following Wednesday, as a much better prepared and more co-ordinated Hull were 4-0 winners. It wasn’t doom and gloom, it was expected and the final goal was an empty netter in an attempt to break the shut out. A much more tangible boost came last weekend during the regular pre-season derby against the Milton Keynes Lightning for the Ashes, an emphatic 2-5 win on the “away” leg, followed by a 3-1 home leg win saw the Phantoms put on a good display of hockey that while it had it’s moments, (such as Lack checking Lewis Christie hard enough to lift him over the boards and into the MKL Bench), maybe appealed more to the purists than the everyday fan.

Overall, it’s a confident feeling Phantoms camp, looking at the team:

The New Boy: Janis Auzins will get a lot of attention, a preseason GAA of under 2.5 and a save average of .94 will do that, but I will tip Edgars Apelis as the one to watch. He’s a solid unit, positions well and it was interesting to watch both Hull and MK players bouncing off of him, not expecting him to be as hard to shift as he was. If he continues like this, it could be that by Christmas, Phantoms fans will be saying “Marcel who”?

The Returnee:

The Captain is a vital position. A leader on and off the ice, he must be able to lead by example, being fired up to lift the team, while calm and collected to communicate effectively with on ice officials and defuse situations that don’t play to the advantage of the team. In James Ferrara, the Phantoms have this in spades. The quietly spoken, highly educated Ferrara has the hockey skills to match. While younger brother Luke prepares the path for a move to the Elite League potentially, James has been there, done that, and has brought that experience back to the team.

How We’ll Do:

Better than last season. I know there are aims within the team. Those will stay in the team as it’s not my place to publish them. I believe with the team we have, a finish as high as 4th is not impossible and a good showing in the Challenge Cup and the post season Play Offs is likely. While we may not have a long bench, I believe the quality is there to bring back some very good results.

If the Phantoms are to be successful, they will need help from veterans like Marc Levers (left #23).  (c) 5 Hole Photography

If the Phantoms are to be successful, they will need help from veterans like Marc Levers (left #23).
(c) 5 Hole Photography

BOTW take:

So here we are, 10teams down and we’re at the last one; the first one as it were as the Phantoms are the Bison’s opening night opponents.

The Phantoms side that finished last season was a mix of two teams; what started and what Slava Koulikov cobbled together when he joined mid-season. It wasn’t a pretty sight and the Phantoms rightly missed the playoffs as they weren’t good enough. Coach Koulikov has had a whole summer to tweak things around and has put together an interesting looking roster.

After rather disgracefully sending Damien King on his way with a one line goodbye under a photo on Facebook, as he did in Slough, Koulikov has gone for an import netminder in the form of Janis Auzins. Having had decent numbers in the Slovakian second tier with Detva, the 23 year old Latvian is in a prime position to make an impact and was reportedly solid in pre-season games with Hull and MK but needs to maintain that across the season.

The Phantoms defence looks good if unspectacular. With Marcel Petran and his jazzhands waving goodbye to the EPL, it’s a less flamboyant looking Peterborough blueline. Players of the quality of Tom Norton, probably the biggest victim of the EIHL’s import increase will not go amiss alongside Petran’s import replacement, Edgars Apelis. After bouncing between France, Latvia and Ukraine last season, he will be hoping for more stability in Cambridgeshire this term and some of his previous campaigns have yielded decent points returns which bodes well for Phantoms fans.

Upfront the Phantoms benefit from having not 1, but 2 foreign born players with British classification in Koulikov and new arrival Edgars Bebris who joins from Sheffield. Bebris fitted in well to the Steeldogs game and was a former Sheffield junior but this move away from what he is used to will arguably benefit his game as he gets to test his skills in a different system and surrounding. I’m sure he’ll get a traditional Steeldogs welcome when the Phantoms visit Ice Sheffield.

The other top Brits are well known names to the locals like Marc Levers and the Ferrara brothers James and Luke, the later being on a two way contract with Sheffield Steelers. The one Brit pickup I really like is Alan Lack who signs from Slough. One of the league’s premier agitators, I personally get a real kick out of watching Alan play so am glad he has found a place in the league.

With one forward in net and one on defence, the returning Darius Pliskauskas and new import forward Milan Baranyk who joins from Polish side GKS Tychy will be looked upon for lots of scoring. Baranyk has an impressive record in the Polish top flight and if he finds his feet should be as popular as Ondrej Lauko was in Peterborough.

Overall this Phantoms roster looks alright; not amazing but alright. With only one team missing the playoffs this season, I don’t think the Phantoms are that team but so much depends on what happens in net with Auzins. If he swims, then there’s a chance they make 5th or 6th. If he sinks then it’s a battle with Bracknell for 8th spot.


Standing in the Way – Manchester Phoenix 2014/15

Manchester Phoenix

Home ice: Silverblades Altrincham

Last season: League champions, cup semifinalists, playoff runners up

Tickets: Link

Team preview: Coming to you live from the classiest car park in Altrincham, it’s the team of The Official Manchester Phoenix Podcast

The EPIHL League champions, Manchester Phoenix stand in front of their fans after losing the playoff final in April. Will next April see a different result for the Altrincham based side? (c) 5 Hole Photography

The EPIHL League champions, Manchester Phoenix stand in front of their fans after losing the playoff final in April.
Will next April see a different result for the Altrincham based side?
(c) 5 Hole Photography (in my opinion, this is one of Grant’s best photos)

Last season in a nutshell

Last season displayed the usual characteristics of a campaign following Manchester Phoenix – not for the faint hearted. The club brought in two new imports – Frantisek Bakrlik from Slough and the fiery Robin Kovar – but retained the strong core of players that had seen them snatch the EPL playoff title from Guildford Flames in a landmark performance at the end of the previous season.

After a relatively subdued start, in which they lost the pre-season trans-Pennine War of the Roses clash with Sheffield Steeldogs for the second year running followed by a couple of relatively hard-won victories, the side suddenly exploded into life, smashing double-figure tallies past Sheffield, Slough and Peterborough Phantoms in successive home games.

Suddenly, there was giddy talk of running away with the league, but this was quickly dispelled as the other teams worked out the Phoenix style and stifled it, coupled with the club’s own trademark inconsistency as the season progressed. Serious injuries, which had plagued the club in previous seasons, largely passed over the Dome but instead afflicted rivals Guildford Flames, resulting in a two-way contest for the league title with Basingstoke Bison in the latter half of the season.

Phoenix sealed their second title by the narrowest of margins, but after another epic playoff semi-final against Swindon Wildcats, dreams of an historic first double were dashed as Phoenix were comprehensively outplayed by a vengeful Bison in the final.

The returnee

Rather than an individual, there are a number of returnees this season that will make the difference, mainly because of a change of emphasis in the makeup of the side. The departure of McKinney, Bentham and Chong will be a blow to Phoenix, which had developed a tough, gritty Brit presence on the ice. Along with the ever-dependable James Archer and Luke Boothroyd, the arrival of Shaun Thompson and Bobby Chamberlain will hopefully keep the spice on the ice, but fringe players such as Jack Watkins, Jacob Corson-Heron and Jared Dickinson (brought up from the NIHL side Manchester Minotaurs), will need to make their mark this season. Watkins and Heron started to stake their claims in the latter part of last season as the top liners battled to maintain consistent form, but this will be a season when doing the little things right will count for a lot, and these players will need to ingest every second of experience they get to impose themselves on the EPL and play their part in what will hopefully be another successful season.

The new boy

Who will make the biggest impact? Robert Schnabel, by not being there. Because of his size and age, Schnabel was prone to being caught out of position and in a straight race tracking back he was nowhere, but when he was on his game his vision was second only to Tony Hand’s and his experience was absolutely vital in accelerating the development of players like Ben Wood. His absence leaves a big gap; not just physically, but in terms of the mental strength he could bring to the blue line. Obviously, everyone hopes that new signing Johan Burlin will prove to be another rock at the back, but he will take time to settle and the fact remains that Phoenix have always had a degree of inconsistency in defence, and while players like James Neil need to have an outstanding season, there is a niggling sense that we are not as strong at the back as we have been in previous seasons. It is interesting to note that Tony Hand has signed Declan Ryan from Telford as an alternate goalie. Steve Fone has been (and doubtless remains) the number one nettie, but it is clear that Tony Hand is less content to have a rookie backup between the pipes if and when Fone is injured (maybe he’s not convinced the protection is there), preferring to perhaps rotate goalies through the season.

How will we do?

Clearly, this looks like being the most competitive EPL season so far, and while the Phoenix work ethic will be as strong as ever, that will not be enough to maintain a season-long challenge for the title. The experience of players that have been brought in elsewhere will add depth on the ice and strength in the mind of their rivals and this will be a key factor as we approach next spring. Tony Hand has also reiterated that he does not intend to play as much in what (he says) is his swansong as a player. Time will tell how committed he remains to this idea, but there is no doubt that without Hand on the ice Phoenix are a weaker side with fewer options. If Hand is indeed going to bench himself more than he plays, this will be a season of transition as others strive to fill the gap.

Nevertheless, there is enough quality in the side to mount a steady challenge for other silverware and if the in-season Cup competition does not yield success (which it hasn’t so far), I suspect Hand will be ready and eager to join the fray and head into the post-season-playoffs in full battle cry for a final tilt at a trophy. Final league position; top 3. Cup or playoff win. But not both, sadly.

Arguably the finest British player to play the sport, Phoenix player/coach Tony Hand has announced that 2014/15 will be his last season as a player. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Arguably the finest British player to play the sport, Phoenix player/coach Tony Hand has announced that 2014/15 will be his last season as a player.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

BOTW take:

So we come to the league champions. In some ways the format of the league and playoffs in the EPL is unfair to a team like Manchester; they get to win what is arguably the most coveted trophy in the context of the British way of looking at hockey in the league then make the playoff final and their season ends on something of a down note after losing a playoff final that was nothing short of a classic.

That said the Phoenix march ever forwards and of course have a large target on their backs. One massive area of improvement is in net. Whilst the standard formula for the Phoenix is ride Steve Fone into the floor and have any backup they can lay their hands on, the Phoenix have arguably the best netminding tandem in the league having secured the services of Declan Ryan. Having carried a large amount of the Tigers workload for so long then been edged out at the end of last season by Tom Murdy, a change in personal circumstances has proven fortunate for the Phoenix where they can now deliver a viscous 1-2 punch in net.

The other big signing for the Phoenix was always going to be important was finding a replacement for the retiring Robert Schnabel. The man signed by Tony Hand is 25 year old Swede, Johan Burlin. The former Skellefteå junior joins from Italian side Fassa and speaks to the sort of player that the Phoenix wanted on their blueline to replace the fan favourite Czech; big, imposing, stay at home with a big shot, Burlin has all the makings of the sort of defenceman that is popular in Altrincham and by being Schnabel’s replacement has big skates to fill, figuratively and literally.

Bar Burlin’s arrival, the Phoenix defensive corps is as the title winning season lead by the EPL player of the year Luke Boothroyd. Now 27 and discussions about whether he should be in the EIHL aside, Boothroyd could walk into any team in the EPL without any discussion. The supporting cast of Graham, Neil and Wood are not flashy but they are dependable.

Up front, the return of a large number of last season’s squad including all three import forwards, Bakrlik, Psurny and Kovar will only aid continuity and cohesion. The questions about whether Bakrlik’s wilder tendencies could be reigned in by Hand were answered and the 3 import forwards combined for 256 points. The fact 99 of them were Michael Psurny shows just how potent this trio is.

The Brit forward pack took a knock with the departure of Andy McKinney to Guildford and Liam Chong stepping aside to focus on his off ice career but to Hand’s credit, he responded well. Bobby Chamberlain needed more ice time and seasoning so his signing from Hull works well for both parties. After bolstering Telford last season, a place was found for Adam Walker amongst the Phoenix forward lines. When Bracknell inexplicably withdrew their contract offer for arguably their best player and top British scorer, Shaun Thompson was added to the roster. The champions are clearly taking the defence of their title seriously. With a capable third line including Jack Watkins and friend of the blog, Jacob Corson-Heron, Manchester are not short of quality.

Player/coach Tony Hand does deserve a mention of his own given that he has announced that he intends the 2014/15 season to be his last on the ice. Off the ice, the coach of the Manchester Phoenix will need to use every bit of skill as a coach to retain the EPL title. Teams have retooled, refocussed and are gunning for them. The Phoenix themselves have made necessary moves, moves that have worked out for them and I feel Hand’s record as, a recruiter is proven once again.

As a player? I can say only the following; I wish someone would actually check you, stop moaning at the refs all the time and you’re the finest player our nation has produced. I wish you the best in the final go around.


Standing in the Way – Sheffield Steeldogs 2014/15

Sheffield Steeldogs

Home ice: Ice Sheffield

Last season: 7th, playoff quarter finalists

Tickets: Genuinely can’t see the link

A virtually identical Sheffield Steeldogs roster has been bolstered by Steelers legend Jeff Legue. Can Andre Payette's men improve on last season's 7th place finish? (c) 5 Hole Photography

A virtually identical Sheffield Steeldogs roster has been bolstered by Steelers legend Jeff Legue. Can Andre Payette’s men improve on last season’s 7th place finish?
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Sadly, the person I had lined up to do the Steeldogs side of the preview had to pull out last minute due to unforeseen circumstances and I couldn’t get a replacement in time. No matter, we’ll do this old school BOTW style.

The Sheffield Steeldogs are a team that provides a fair amount of talking points in the league and it depends who you talk to. They’re gritty, they’re goons, they’re hard nosed, they’re honest, they’re dirty; a wide mix of adjectives get thrown around when discussing them and consensus is rarely achieved. Let’s start with what we know.

Out of all the teams in the EPL, the Steeldogs are the ones who have made the fewest numerical changes; 2 in and 2 out however they are changes of significance.

Out is Edgars Bebris (more about him on Friday) and Greg Chambers and coming in is Cameron Brownley who joins full time on a two year deal and some guy called Jeff Legue.

Jokes aside, Legue is a massive signing for the league and the Steeldogs. In his previous 9 professional seasons, Legue has spent 7 with the neighbouring Steelers in the EIHL with 497 games in 403 games. At 33, Legue is not a spring chicken but he’s not exactly over the hill either and 3 years with a player of his calibre on the ice and assisting Andre as assistant coach is only going to benefit the Steeldogs as a team and in the scoring.

The question with Legue isn’t his quality, individually he’s a good player and we can’t deny that but across the season can he do enough to lift the Steeldogs. Is he going to be the guy that will put the team on his back and carry them? The issue for Steeldogs might be whilst they’ve signed this fantastic player, the support cast around him might not be best suited to him.

Allow me to illustrate with an example; a few years ago, the football team I support AFC Bournemouth signed former England international Darren Anderton. Now Anderton was past his prime but at that level, he was good but almost too good in some ways. Anderton was always one step ahead and always thinking that one second quicker than his team mates and they couldn’t keep up with what he was thinking at times. Now the Steeldogs are a talented side that plays a rigid system. The question is, will Legue’s style and quality fit into the Steeldogs mould of hockey?

Steeldogs captain and former Bison, Greg Wood will be looking to bring silverware back to Ice Sheffield in 2014/15 (c) 5 Hole Photography

Steeldogs captain and former Bison, Greg Wood will be looking to bring silverware back to Ice Sheffield in 2014/15
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The Steeldogs have tried and tested this method for a while of having a very skilled import and surrounding him with players that give him the space to do what he wants. Janis Ozolins, Greg Chambers, Lubomir Korhon. Sometimes they’ve even tried two together but actually this year I think they’ve got the two best ones they’ve had in Korhon and Legue. Korhon on his own wasn’t a guy who could do all the leg work but with someone like Legue as his set up man and maybe Tom Squires on the right wing could be a very useful line. I’ve not seen the lines used in the recent War of the Roses win over Manchester so I’m theorising here but that’s not a bad top line at this level.

All the rest of the squad are returnees. Dalibor Sedlar, who I maintain is a good though not great keeper is backed up again by Brad Day. Sedlar, who turns 27 in December is starting to come into the prime years for a goalie so it remains to be seen for me if he pushes on and reaches that upper echelon of EPL netminders that many think he can get to. I’d agree that the potential is there for Sedlar to be the best in the EPL but he’s not there at this moment in time.

Up front, the return of talismanic (or the most hated man in the world if you’re a Manchester fan) Greg Wood is a major boost for Sheffield. Capable of being a 60-70 point Brit, his scoring is always vital for the Steeldogs. The usual suspects are back as well in names like Lloyd Gibson, Ashley Calvert, Craig Elliott and Andrew Hirst. Names that are now established EPL players in, what I said in last year’s Steeldogs preview, was Sheffield’s plan to produce a real core to sustain them competitively long term in the EPL. The return of Callum Pattison will also please the fight fans if not the game’s purists..

For all the criticisms that Sheffield get one shining gem for them and something they never really get enough credit for is their all British defence. Again, names that a couple of years ago that people sneered at are credible names that would not look amiss on any EPL side. Steve Duncombe, who I readily admit I’d sign if I were Basingstoke coach along with Ben Morgan, Lee Haywood, Tim Smith and Lewis Bell are a more than capable top 5 in the EPL. It’s certainly good company for Tom Barry to develop in.

Then there’s Andre Payette. What can be said about Andre that hasn’t been said a million times over? I’ll say I’m glad that his knee is fit again after his injury. It was reportedly very nasty and I’m glad he’s able to continue playing. Andre is a character of the game, of that there’s no doubt but many will of course bemoan his antics when ultimately he’s a player of quality when he’s not trying to be the entertainer and instead tries to play hockey.

Emphatic pre-season win over Manchester withstanding, we all know what we’ll get at times from the Steeldogs over the course of a season or at least we think we do. I’ve readily (and I think rightly) criticised them when they’ve not played in what I think is the spirit of the game. This is of course only one man’s opinion but as this is my blog I assume that’s what you’re here to read So I’ll say this as clearly as I can;

Whilst I do not like how they approach the game, simply counting the Sheffield Steeldogs out as goons or knuckledraggers or whatever is one of the biggest mistakes we can make.

This team has the quality there to really do damage. I don’t think this is a title winning side but capable of making the cup final? Yes. Capable of getting to Coventry? Yes. I just wish they’d not make me hate the way they go about doing it so much.


Standing in the Way – The NIHL Cup Special

The loss from the EPIHL of the Slough Jets meant a shortening of the league campaign but in some ways it has resulted in something that some have been wanting for years; an expanded competition with clubs from the NIHL taking part.

For the brand new EIHA Challenge Cup, the teams in the EPL have been split into 2 groups with 3 teams from NIHL 1 added to them. The Southern group which includes the Bison will see us play a home and away game against 3 of the top teams in the NIHL 1 South.

Chelmsford Chieftains

Home Ice: Riverside Ice and Leisure Centre

Last season: League Champions, Playoff Champions, South East Trophy Champions, NIHL South 1 Cup Champions

Head coach: Dwayne Newman

Tickets: http://www.chelmsfordchieftains.org/tickets-1/

Team preview: Fabrizzio Tessadri, Chieftains fan

Having won all four trophies available to them last season, the Chelmsford Chieftains begin this campaign as the team everyone has their sights firmly set on in the NIHL Division 1 South. With influential player coach Gary Clarke calling time on his career, the reigns have now been handed to Dwayne “Dog” Newman to build a side ready to challenge for honours once again.

Along with Clarke, this summer has seen the retirement of D man Alex Green and the departure of young forward Luke Brittle. The exits of former Bison forward Daniel Volrab and fan favourite Tibor Schneider left Newman with voids to fill at both ends of the ice.

He was quick to re-sign the remaining nucleus of the quadruple winning side; they say that stats don’t lie, so in keeping Ben Clements and Euan King between the pipes, the Chieftains have the strongest netminder duo in the league. On the blue line, last year’s player of the season, Julian Smith continues along with Alex Staples and John Connolly. Ryan Giles joins from Invicta and the import slot is filled by the experienced Lukas Zapotec, who steps down a division after six years with MK Lightning. Sean Barry steps up from the Warriors and veteran Danny Wright will play his 14th season as a Chieftains man

The strong forward line remains largely intact from last season; Danny Hammond is welcomed home to re-join the Academy nurtured talent of Ross Brears, James Ayling, Matt Turner, and Darren Brown. Import Martin Piecha joins after posting impressive stats in the German third tier over the last 3 seasons and Michael Ranby will be looking to get under the skin of rival goalies after an injury hit season. The Bartlett brothers will again be taking no prisoners on the ice but a long term ligament injury to Grant should see highly rated U18 Academy forward Bailey Chittock given opportunities to progress.

The English Challenge Cup brings an exciting new challenge and I think Premier League fans will be surprised by the strength of the three Southern lower league sides. Chelmsford have a good blend of experience and home grown youth but, having just played one game, I think the upcoming weekend cup games may be a little early to see the team playing at their best. Having lost last season’s two top point scorers in Clarke and Volrab, the Chieftains will look to Hammond, Piecha and the ever impressive Brears to fill the void.

With all three NIHL South participants having featured in the Premier league at some stage in their history, and the competition is a chance to see just how close they now are to the standard of the division above. I am sure Chieftains fans will be looking forward to seeing Premier league talent and a couple of old faces return to the Riverside.

BOTW Take:

To say the Chelmsford Chieftains are the top of the NIHL South 1 tree at the moment is an understatement. With last season’s player/coach Gary Clarke having called time on hockey and the team having seen him off in style with 4 trophies, the task of taking the reigns at the Riverside fell to Peterborough legend and former Chieftains captain Dwayne “Dog” Newman.

Newman has kept a large chunk of what was, at NIHL level, a very good roster. Lead by captain Julian Smith, a defence including the excellent John Connolly is bolstered by Lukas Zatopek who joins from MK Lightning in place of Tibor Schneider. Zatopek, who is still EPL quality will be an impact player at NIHL level and a valuable asset against EPL sides.

Up front, local favourite Danny Hammond is back in a Chelmsford jersey after a year away at Invicta and will be a big scoring threat alongside Ross Brears and Matt Turner who had 65 and 44 points last term respectively. With new import forward Martin Piecha (who because he played for Rostock’s rivals Halle, I am obliged to boo) in to replace for Bison centre Daniel Volrab, things up front look good for the Essex side. I also wait to see the reaction to the style of play of Michael Ranby who might be the NIHL South’s premier agitator.

If there’s a team that will be predicted to take a few scalps in the cup then it will be Chelmsford. The issue for the NIHL teams won’t be winning at home but winning on the road of they want to progress in the competition. The Chieftains are arguably the best set up to win on the road and I personally am really looking forward to how last season’s champions who return with most of last season’s roster will face up against some of the EPL’s bigger names.

Isle of Wight “Wightlink” Raiders

Home Ice: Ryde Arena

Last season: 2nd, Playoff finalists

Head player/coach: Jeremy Cornish

Tickets: http://wightlinkraiders.com/about-the-wightlink-raiders/tickets/

Team preview: #81 Carl Graham, Raiders defenceman

“It may be slightly hard for me to be totally accurate with a pre season review of how things are shaping up as it’s quite a new realm for me in some respects. However comparing ourselves to other teams and the players that are signed, I believe we will be looking to take 1st spot in the competitions.

The league has improved a lot this season with a number of players joining from the EPL. I believe this is a good thing and will not only bring the standard up but coupled with the EPL cup will allow fans to see new teams and players to have new challenges.

I think I would be foolish to say we will breeze through this, however confident and skilled we may be, it will be a challenge to finish in the top 4 of the new cup. I think our home advantage is one massive plus and we need to aim for a 100% record here and nothing short. When we visit teams away, we need to aim to take points where we can and compete against the top teams and who knows, every team has their off day.

Speaking before even turning up to pre season is risky, however the vibe I get is that this is our year and the team has been recruited to deliver that for the fans and respective owners.

BOTW take:

The Raiders have been the bridesmaids in the NIHL in recent seasons, a fact which will no doubt niggle at coach Jeremy Cornish. In fact the last two seasons they have been beaten out by the Chieftains to the league title and the playoffs. It’s starting to wear thin.

The obvious upgrade for the Raiders is up front where Matt Vizzari has been replaced by former EPL player of the year and former Bison forward, Jaroslav Cesky. Cornish has reportedly been chasing Cesky for a couple of years and finally, after a season where he bounced around between EPL and EIHL to come to Ryde.

The core names from last season like Richard Facey, Nathan Taylor and captain Damon Larter are supplemented with a raft of quality additions like Ryan Webb, Bobby Streetly, Stephen Balmer and the above mentioned Mr Graham.

The Raiders will be there or thereabouts in the mix for the NIHL South 1 title, there’s no question of that. As for how they do in the cup remains to be seen. As Carl says above, the Raiders need to use the unique environs of the Ryde Arena to their advantage. Keepers will have to face 20 or 30 extra shots than they are used to whereas Christian Cole will be used to it. It’s a unique rink, one I look forward to finally getting to watch the Bison play in. A top 4 finish in the Southern half of the cup is a credible target but their home and away results against their fellow NIHL opponents and their away games at EPL sides will have a massive bearing on such things.

Invicta Dynamos

Home Ice: Gillingham Ice Bowl

Last season: 3rd, Playoff semi finalists

Head coach: Kevin Parrish

Tickets: http://www.invictadynamos.co.uk/Tickets.aspx?type=Match

Team preview: #98 Chris Douglas, Dynamos netminder

Well, a new season about to start and my second season with the Invicta Dynamos. Last year we played hard all season but a high SOG against and injuries cost us.

This year we have kept the core of the team and I think Kev has strengthened where we needed it. We have kept our first line of Huska, Smith and Fowler who can be devastating literally passing around even the best of teams in the NIHL, all three guys can score and turn a game on its head at any moment. I believe our second line will be our Captain Leonie (Anthony Leone), Greg Chambers and Steve Osman. Chambers is a top player who can make passes very few will be able to in our league and with Leonies’ hard skating and ability to win the puck and Osman’s finishing I think we have two of the top offensive lines in the league.

Defensively we are a lot stronger than last year with a mix of youth and youthful experience. Aaron Strawson returns along with Chris Cooke from Guildford. Both guys were really dependable last season in my eyes Cookie just got better and better and I hope that continues this season if he does it will be Guildford’s loss. Our biggest additions I think are Billy and Charlie Phillips; Billy gives us toughness that we really lacked last season and a hell of a shot from the blueline but we will need him on the ice and not in the box if he can do that this year he will be the best Brit d-man in our league and his brother Charlie small kid but WOW what a hitter like a half sized Carl Greenhouse for people who remember him. Even guys twice his size need to have their head up again cut out the silly stuff this guy will be snapped up quickly by the EPL . These two I think will be the key to a different season for us.

Then me in goal; I’ll just keep dancing and enjoying my hockey in my old age and if I can stay fit and injury free ill keep us in games we shouldn’t be in and let in some Bad Bad goals :)

I think the EPL cup is a good beginning for a new Era of British hockey it’ll showcase the best young Brits in the NIHL to bigger teams and give the EPL young guns a chance to shine. Plus it will give fans a chance to see other rinks and get new rivalries. (maybe even convince people its time for a 3 import EPL and a two import EPL2 league North/South Divisions)

I think we will be able to keep the games close for the most part in the cup especially against the teams that go by the spirit of the thing and rest their older players and play a full line or line and half of juniors from the start and not just after they are 5 up. I hope we will get a few points here an there if we click and if the guys can step up the intensity for a full 60 minutes we can turn someone over.

BOTW take:

Invicta have been an interesting team these last couple of years. Between 2003/04 and 2009/10, they didn’t finish lower than 1st in the (then) ENL table. They were the dominant force, the powerhouse, the dynasty. Since the arrival of Chelmsford, Romford and Wightlink into the league however their force has been waning.

That’s not to say that this entry into the EIHA Challenge Cup will magically make them the unstoppable force again but Kevin Parrish has put together a roster that should not only make a dent in the league but also in the cup.

The addition of Greg Chambers as player/assistant coach is something of a coup for the Dynamos and alongside returning import Juraj Huska gives them a very potent import force. Up front the addition of Steve Osman from the Isle of Wight, if he returns to the form of old should be an impact player alongside top NIHL level players like Callum Fowler (who could and probably should be in the EPL) and Nicky Lewis.

On defence, Parrish has secured the services of Billy and Charlie Phillips as well as signing Chris Cooke on a permanent basis from Guildford as well as giving a chance to Elliott Dewey to impress at NIHL 1 where he couldn’t make the breakthrough at EPL level last year. With Chris Douglas in net, the Dynamos have a chance to win every night.

How the Dynamos do out of the three teams is the biggest wildcard as no matter how I try, I can’t seem to get a read on them. I quite like that and look forward to seeing what they can do.


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