Running with the Herd – Milton Keynes Lightning vs Bison 05/03/14Posted: 06/03/2014
EPL Cup Final 1st Leg
Milton Keynes Lightning 1-4 Basingstoke Bison
Carlon Melachrino x 2 (1pp)
Momentum: The Bison travelled at full strength to the Skydome with the addition of over 100 Bison fans on the two Booster Club coaches as well as others who travelled up alone and the addition of a couple of Coventry Blaze fans who came along. The Lightning were without Josh Nicklin and Connor Goode, starting Stephen Wall in net.
The first few exchanges were even as both teams sought to establish themselves, the Bison getting an early chance from an Aaron Connolly shot that was swallowed up by the pads of Wall.
The forays continued; the Bison line of Karpov, Melachrino and Wales took to the ice. Some good work forced a break up ice between Wales and Melachrino. With Melachrino on the puck, one of the Lightning defencemen took Wales out of the play off the puck but the arm of neither official was raised but Melachrino kept the puck. The Bison forward advanced on the Lightning goal, took the puck onto his backhand and shovelled the puck past Wall at 04:02 to get the Bison on the board.
The Lightning however responded by storming off of the faceoff and immediately put the Bison on the back foot, peppering Skinns’ net with shots. Blaz Emersic was putting in a workhorse like performance, feeding Tom Carlon who set off around the back of the Bison net. The former Coventry Blaze man, more than at home on the Skydome ice came around the back of the Bison net and between himself and Emersic managed to stuff the puck past Skinns at 05:32 and the Lightning were back in the tie.
The Lightning kept their foot firmly on the gas pedal. Emersic again was at the centre of things, taking a feed from behind the net but Skinns was equal to the task. The Bison defence seemed shaken, the hosts’ forecheck them endless problems. The Herd were still having opportunities when they managed to break out, Joe Greener coming close and eventually some of the pressure was relieved when Ross Bowers was called for interference.
The Bison couldn’t take advantage of the man advantage and Milton Keynes were straight back on the attack. Leigh Jamieson had a shot off of the left wing that was saved by Skinns and a bad bounce of the puck gave Jordan Cownie a huge opportunity. The Lightning forward fired goal wards and Skinns could only juggle the puck which dropped close to the post but a Bison defenceman was on hand to clear the danger.
When Janne Jokila broke past the Bison defence only some handy stick work from Miroslav Vantroba could save the Herd, the Slovak taking the hooking penalty which carried over into the second period, the buzzer giving the Bison a much needed bit of respite from a period where their hosts had had the better of the balance of play.
The Bison managed to kill off the Vantroba penalty and were soon sent to the powerplay themselves when Grant McPherson got his stick up on Michael Wales. The powerplay unit set to work and it didn’t take long for the Herd to set up a good screen in front of Wall. The puck was worked up to the point for Vantroba who fired through the traffic in front of net to put the Bison back on top of the tie, the powerplay marker coming at 22:12.
The Bison started to wrestle a bit of momentum from the Lightning. The line of Rand, Sheppard and Connolly produced a fantastic shift where they pinned the Lightning in their own zone, Connolly getting the shooting chance but Wall was equal to it.
Jokila was called for hooking and shortly afterwards Lewis Christie went high on Andy Melachrino. Christie got 2+10 for checking to the head and the Bison had a 5on3 powerplay but despite some really good powerplay work, the Lightning penalty kill unit did a good job and the Herd failed to add to the score.
Joe Rand made one of his trademark dashes to the net but the net became dislodged and a crowd formed with Connolly and Grant McPherson looking like they were about to have more than just cross words but they were led away by the linesman. Lukas Zatopek was also adjudged to have pushed the net off of its moorings and was called for delay of the game so the Bison went back to the powerplay.
The Bison’s top powerplay unit went back to work and it felt like a breakthrough was coming and eventually it did. Ciaran Long had the shot in the slot that was well saved by Wall but the Lightning netminder gave up a juicy rebound. With no MK defencemen quick enough to react, Andy Melachrino pounced on the loose puck to pot his second of the night at 32:45.
The Lightning raced from the faceoff to try and get back into the game but were shortly back on the back foot as the Bison seemed to not want to give their hosts a sniff of the momentum of the game back.
Moments later the GCL line of Greener, Chinn and Long made matters worse for the Lightning. Joe Greener got himself into the similar spot that Long had been for the Bison’s third goal and fired goalwards. Wall must have had a horrifying sense of deja vu as the rebound popped out straight to Long who found the gap to make it 4-1 to the Bison at 35:08; the Bison’s 2nd goal in 3 minutes forcing Nick Poole to call the timeout.
The timeout stemmed some of the tide but the Bison were right back to it and seeking their 5th goal with their hosts starting to show some frustrations. Michael Wales crashed the net and fell into Wall who greeted him with a shot to the face.
The Bison were sent back to the powerplay when Grant McPherson was called for crosschecking on Connolly. The travelling Stampede though they had a 5th when a shot from Doug Sheppard was tipped in front by Joe Rand but the puck went millimetres wide and scrapped the back of the goal. The powerplay was negated shortly afterwards when Connolly was sent to the box for highsticking but the second period ended much better for the Bison than the first had. The nerves had settled and they had a commanding 4-1 lead.
After Joe Rand somehow managed to check two Lightning players at the same time to start the third, the Bison were soon on the penalty kill after Matt Selby landed a hard hit on Cownie that was called as boarding. Joe Baird was also swiftly called for hooking handing MK a 5on3 powerplay chance. The Bison penalty killing unit managed to keep on top of the Lightning’s plan and killed off both penalties unscathed.
The teams traded chances and penalties as the period ticked on. Connolly was called for tripping before Leigh Jamieson then Kurt Reynolds got 2+10 checking from behind penalties but none of the calls provided powerplay goals.
The Bison were still having the control of the tempo, holding the Lightning at bay as time wound down with the Herd content to allow a few shots on Skinns from distance that weren’t forcing much exertion from Skinns. Ross Bowers and Lukas Zatopek had the better of the chances but as the away fans rose to the strains of The Great Escape, “half time” of the tie sounded with the Herd on top in the contest and Matt Selby and Stanislav Lascek exchanging “pleasantries”.
A big step on a job half done: What could have been a massive banana skin ended up seeing the Bison at their best in the biggest game of the season. The first period was nervy and shaky, they recovered in the second and made the best of the Lightning taking too many penalties and making too many mistakes and in the third they held their hosts at bay. In the first period the Herd looked nervous and MK came flying at them but they weathered the storm, scored that powerplay goal early in the second and never looked back. The Bison fought their way back into the game and rightly took the decision.
Miroslav Vantroba took the man of the match beers and he, along with all the defence played a decent game but again Andy Melachrino was my nod in such matters. Riding the form and confidence wave of his senior career, Melachrino is taking full advantage of all the ice time he’s getting and any extra space from the fact teams are now closely marking Karpov.
The other excellent performance on the night for me came from Ciaran Long. I’ve said for a while that Long is a huge performer in big games and last night, whatever switch that there is in his head was once again flicked. Long just seems to get better as the season goes on and in the biggest game of the season he was outstanding again. He looked a constant threat and was given able support to do what he did by Joe Greener and Nicky Chinn.
It was another consummate team performance from the Bison who managed to snuff out the threat that the Lightning posed on the night. There’s 60 minutes of hockey to be played but if the Bison find a way to play like that again, the wait might finally be over.
A word on our opponents: If Milton Keynes had found a way to play in the last 40 minutes as they did in the first 20 minutes, then this would be a very different report. They were on top at the end of the first period despite the even score but the Lightning allowed the Vantroba goal, started taking silly penalties, got frustrated and paid the price for it.
Jordan Cownie was a decent choice for man of the match on the balance of the 60 minutes with a really solid performance though Blaz Emersic also gave his all on the night, being the only one of the Lightning’s imports that really seemed to stamp much of his ability on the game.
Stephen Wall looked more and more frustrated as the game went on and I don’t blame him on the whole. Whilst he might have wanted to do better with the first Bison goal, he was screened for the second and rebound control aside didn’t get any support from his defenders on goals 3 and 4. The telling point came when after the timeout Lascek went to tap Wall’s pads and the Lightning netminder appeared to wave his teammate away. The goalie was an angry goalie.
Is the mountain too tall for the Lightning to climb? No, it’s not. This is hockey and anything can happen in the space of 60 minutes. The issue for Milton Keynes is how they respond to this. They have a tough task ahead of them, there’s no denying that but a well disciplined, hard hitting MK performance like we all know they’re capable of will give them a chance. Nick Poole has a week to devise a plan to bring the cup back to their temporary home at the Skydome.
Lowlight of the night: Jamieson’s hit on Vantroba was just nasty; through the numbers and Miro almost did a cartoon-esque slither down the boards.
Highlight of the night: The whole night, the entire fanbase seems pretty happy after it.