Banners On The Road – Wightlink Raiders vs Chelmsford Chieftains 20/4/13

NIHL South 1 Playoff Final 1st leg

Wightlink Raiders 3-4 Chelmsford Chieftains

Hanzal x 2                 Brears x 2

Smith                        Clarke

                                Sinkovic

The game: The first weekend of real sunshine and warm weather greeted the fans who made the trip over from the mainland. Fans from Basingstoke, Bracknell, Guildford and Swindon (that I saw) joined the Wightlink and Chieftains fans at Ryde for the Raiders biggest crowd of the season at 825. Ryan Bainborough started between the pipes for the league champions and Matt Colclough was between the pipes for the Raiders.

The Raiders took an early lead just over two minutes into the game when Jiri Hanzal from the side of the net managed to somehow find a way to get the puck between Bainborough and his post.

The tension of the tie was broken slightly moments after; Raiders player/coach Jeremy Cornish finished his hit on Chieftains import defenceman Tibor Schneider. Schneider kept his eye on Cornish and seconds later checked the Canadian on the half boards but for some reason he couldn’t go anywhere other than down. For those of you not aware, Ryde Arena has netting down the long sides of the rink so the hit had lodged his glove in the netting. As Cornish tried to skate away he was sharply pulled to the ice and everyone had a little chuckle.

The period was very even in terms of its play but neither team really settled down in the first frame. The Cheiftains were moving the puck really well as they searched for an equaliser. Player/coach Gary Clarke rang a shot off the goal frame and the really well set up Chelmsford powerplay set the table for Danny Marshall to fire home at the back door but he failed to connect with the puck. The game had a playoff feel to it but it was also really tense as either side seemed petrified of making a mistake.

The two teams had a coming together and some bad words were obviously said. Oddly the only person to take a penalty from the affair was Radiers forward Richard Facey. It was the opportunity that the Chieftains needed. The powerplay went to work and with 2 seconds to play in the game and a man in front of Colclough the puck found its way into the net with the goal credit to Ross Brears.

The goal had dealt a blow to the Raiders who had hoped to maintain their lead into the first break and it only got worse as the second period started. The Chieftains charged straight to the net from the start and Brears added his second goal of the night as he bundled his second of the night past Colcough and Chelmsford led the tie.

The frantic pace of the first period died off a bit after this point as the teams looked to be planning their next move but both sides were determined to have chances. Raiders defenceman Dan Pye hammered a shot off of the goalpost whilst at the other end the crisp Chieftains passing moves sprung a two on one that forced a superb save from Colclough in the Raiders net.

The Raiders picked up the pace around the half way point; Craig Tribe had a chance when he beat his man to the puck and raced towards Bainborough but the former Bison man’s backhand shot went wide then shortly after Bainborough took a puck off of his mask. The period wound down with Wightlink on the powerplay when Schneider was called for hooking but it was clear that the Chieftains looked the calmer of the two sides, the Raiders still looking rather full of nervous energy.

The third started with the Raiders on the powerplay but the start of the third was no better for the hosts than the start of the second. The Chieftains cleared the puck down the ice and Colclough went round to play the puck. The problem Colclough faced was that none of his defenceman came to take the puck so Colclough ended up playing the puck right into the path of Gary Clarke who made it 3-1 at 40:53.

The crazy end to end action of the first returned but it wasn’t the end for crazy goals in the game as the Raiders found a way back in to the game. Hanzal took the puck on the half way line and just hammered it goalwards. Somewhere in the lights Bainborough lost sight of the puck and it flew into the top corner of the net at 43:20 to cut the lead to 3-2.

The Raiders kept pressing for the equaliser as the visitors played very patient hockey and looked to counter when the chance arose.

It took a great bit of individual skill to make an impact in the game; Craig Tribe had been quiet most of the game but picked up the puck, split the defenders and was in on Bainborough. The Chieftains goalie made the initial save but Tribe stickhandled on his knees and Bainborough lost sight of the puck and managed to play the puck into space and James Smith fired into the virtually empty net and the Raiders were back on level terms with 10:30 to play.

Chelmsford were still looking dangerous and Wightlink’s Nathan Taylor was forced into hauling down his man to stop a breakaway but the league champions took their chance on the powerplay. The Raiders lost sight of Julius Sinkovic who was given the puck in time and space and found a way past Colclough to restore the Chieftains’ lead at 52:15.

The Raiders pressed and pressed but just couldn’t seem to find that killer edge, their best chance coming when Tribe and Smith broke in two on one. Smith fed Tribe but Bainborough made a terrific save to his right to deny the goal.

Raiders called their timeout in the last minute to attempt to make a plan but the final buzzer sounded and the Chieftains go into their home leg of the tie tonight in Essex with a 1 goal advantage.

The Raiders: It wasn’t the best Raiders performance sadly on the biggest stage. At times some players looked lost on the ice and off the pace. They struggled with the Chieftains more skilful style of play and lacked the final touch at times that could have seen them go into the 2nd leg either ahead or tied. Despite scoring twice, Jiri Hanzal had a very quiet game and the entire top line just didn’t really seem on top of their game and errors across the board caused issues for Wightlink but there were some real positives to take from the game.

Firstly the character of the team shone through when having gone 3-1 down, the Raiders stepped up their game in the third period to find a way back. It did take a bit of luck, see Hanzal’s second goal but hard work got them the equaliser. It was just a shame that shortly afterwards it kind of fell by the wayside for the Chieftains’ 4th.

James Smith was an OK shout for man of the match as his workrate throughout was terrific but, had he played 60 minutes it likely would have gone to Dan Pye. Pye, who took a puck to the face in Romford last week and took pucks to the leg this week didn’t ice in the third period but his partnership with Niall Bound was excellent and the former Newcastle Viper has come good at the business end of a season blighted for him by injury.

The Raiders did OK and are not out of the tie by any stretch but they need to treat Sunday’s second leg as what it is; one game, 60 minutes with nothing to lose because whilst they arguably might not be able to outplay Chelmsford or be the more skilful side they have the tenacity to outwork them and that could win them the tie.

The Chieftains: It was easy to see on this showing why Chelmsford won the NIHL South 1 title; as a team they have skill, grit, good systems which they stick to and just have that “it” factor that championship winning sides need.

I didn’t agree with the man of the match choice though. Whilst Ryan Bainborough made some very good saves, I don’t think he had the best of games. My choice for man of the match was a toss up between Gary Clarke and James Ayling. Ayling, the up and coming local product had a very similar game to Smith for the Raiders in the sense that he never stopped working, did the little things well and when you go 0+3 in a 4-3 win, that’s a very big impact on the game. I though Clarke led well from the front and that little bit of extra skill he possesses over other players at this level just makes him a joy to watch even on the smaller Ryde ice which doesn’t really suit his game.

Clarke won’t be happy that his charges let a 3-1 lead slip but Chelmsford too showed character. They stayed calm, regrouped and went right back to the task in hand. On the balance of the game the Chieftains were the better side and probably deserve their lead given the balance of play. Where Wightlink did many of the same things that Chelmsford did, the key is Chelmsford looked the tighter side on the night. The Raiders used their nervous energy to their advantage at times but Chelmsford rode out their nerves and settled into their game better and that told. If it happens again tonight then it’s a Chelmsford double.

Overall: It was a great day for hockey at Ryde yesterday; great weather, a nice full building a good playoff tie for the masses in attendance. I received a lot of messages from fans of EPL teams who were coming over to check out Isle of Wight hockey for the first time as I’ve banged on about what a great time it is for ages. For those who made it across, I hope you enjoyed yourselves.

Chelmsford hold the advantage and, as said above they probably earned the advantage on the balance of the game as a whole though there were periods where Wightlink were in command. This tie is not over by a long chalk but it really depends on the first goal tonight at the Riverside; if the Raiders pull level it adds a different dimension to things but if the Chieftains score first then the mountain becomes that much bigger for the Raiders at a rink where they’ve not had a great deal of success in recent years.

May the best team win.

(Also thanks to Heather Jepson and Dave Logan for putting up with me again.)

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