Curtain Down 17/18

At the end of every season, BOTW wraps up what has been, says some thank you to some people and looks at what is to come. The season has ended, this is Curtain Down.

When I became a father in July 2017, I knew everything would change. My hockey life was already in something of disarray; the EPL was dead, the PHL didn’t even last long enough to see the light of day and whilst the Bison had been admitted to NIHL 1 South back in May, the original conference format for the division was already in the bin. When my son entered the world, I don’t think I’d have even noticed if the rink had walked round the ring road to Brighton Hill.

However life goes on and in amongst the stresses, strains and metric ton of joy of being a dad came the fact that I needed and wanted this sport in my life and I wanted and needed BOTW to keep going. I needed my escape from the world that my writing had always been and so I had choices to make.

I chose to keep the writing focussed on the Basingstoke Bison and chose to try and make the podcast focussed on NIHL 1 as a whole as best as I could. I knew my knowledge of the north wasn’t as strong as other areas so tried to get on guests who could speak from positions of strength in both regions so that people from there wouldn’t feel patronised and people from the other region would be interested. BOTW also stepped into an NIHL with some established blogging and new media people and it was always the intention not to step on toes but to add to the landscape.

If I look back over the last season, I think I just about managed to get the balance that I wanted to achieve. Life did get in the way and I didn’t always keep the podcast schedule to exactly what I wanted but I think I managed to get a decent enough mix of guests onto the show and managed to keep the podcast rooted in the whole NIHL whilst looking at other places as well which has always been the plan. I think I managed to provide decent and fair analysis of the hockey that I watched across the season and I like to think if I’d stepped on anyone’s toes by now that someone would have said.

Along with my volunteering for the Bison’s social media side of things, as a writer I reached a more varied audience than previous years along with being part of the EIHA’s media panel for deciding the player of the month for South 1 and 2. When someone asked how I got a media pass for the NIHL final four weekend, I said it was 7 years of grinding to get what I do as a hobby recognised as something that whilst I’m an amateur at, is something that I take seriously and can be appreciated for. That’s a good start but it is not an ending, merely an impetus to keep getting better.

The first season of this new era where the NIHL found itself thrust into the position of being British hockey’s second tier wasn’t without its challenges; issues with scheduling games including an Autumn Cup that finished in March, teams at the bottom of divisions 1 and 2 of both sections not being close to competitive and some interesting disciplinary and administrative decisions all need examining over the summer.

Has this new day for the NIHL been a success? It certainly hasn’t been a 10/10 but neither has it been a zero either. I think if we’re honest and given what was achieved within the timescale that appeared last summer, we had a 6 or a 7/10 if we’re being honest. BOTW will be actively asking for peoples’ opinions later this month and would encourage you to have your say.

The Basingstoke Bison, the team that this site was created to cover, did not start well on this new venture. September and October were not as good as they could have been with poor form in the early part of the season effectively costing the Bison progress in the National Cup.

However Doug Sheppard made changes in some areas, doubled down on his young players and asked them to step up. Some favourable scheduling, the addition of Roman Malinik and some belief saw the Herd pick up steam and in the end it was enough.

Whilst the rink situation has not gone away (nor will we keep quiet on it), the season for the Bison simply has to be graded as an “A”. Whilst the Bison were pushed to the very wire and the 5th tie breaker by the Peterborough Phantoms in terms of the league title, consistency from both sides across the season came down to three pressure weekends between the two sides. The Phantoms threw a four goal lead away, the Bison scored 18 goals in two games. The Phantoms got a late equaliser in the first leg of the southern playoff final, the Bison found the extra goal the next night. The Phantoms got out played by the Telford Tigers in Coventry, the Bison out ran the Tigers. That’s not to particularly get at the Phantoms, they just happen to be a common thread in the story. The story is that in spite of a facility that is not of the required standard, Doug Sheppard and this group of players could not be denied something special and in the NIHL no team stands above them.

As we start the thanks, I must show appreciation to Victory Hockey UK for sponsoring The BOTW Podcast. Mike and Pete have been excellent sponsors of the show and I think the partnership has benefited both sides excellently as we come from a similar place of what we want and where we want to go.

A tip of the hat goes to the NIHL League Management, particularly Richard Carpenter and Craig Simpson at the EIHA for accepting what this place is and what I’m trying to do. Myself and the rest of the NIHL bloggers and social media union are thankful that we’re not kept out in the cold but accepted as part of the landscape.

Whilst he is not everyone’s favourite person at times, John Neville of Planet Ice and I are able to have some very frank discussions. Whilst we might disagree, it is never done in malice and long may that continue.

For a while, Grant King has graciously let me use his photographs as required on here. To hear that he was to receive the Outstanding Contribution to the Club award at the end of season awards was justice served for a good bloke and a superb servant of the club.

I always have to thank my friends week in and week out at Bison games for never failing to keep me honest and laughing at me when I, no doubt, deserve it. The old man will never stop yelling at the clouds.

Paul and Becky Shipman’s hospitality over playoff weekend never ceases to amaze me. Between Paul and Stuart Coles, the three old men sat in a pub on playoff Friday having a beer might need to be the new tradition so we can put the world to rights.

To the Basingstoke Bison; Doug, Aaron and the boys; it’s been nothing short of surreal and wonderful. Here’s to what comes next.

In past years I’ve always thanked my wife first but I save her till last this year along with the newest member of our line. Emily and Nathan, who make coming home after every win and every loss the best of things; thank you for knowing why I have to go and that I will always come back. I love you both.

So what now? The short answer with the rink situation in Basingstoke up in the air is that I do not know 100%. It depends what happens there but there are plans. We’re not going away, we’re always watching in our own way.

I wish you and your family the very best of summers. Enjoy the rest, roll on September.

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The BOTW 2018 Playoff Finals Weekend Review


The BOTW Podcast – episode 72

We’re all off to Coventry so Anthony and Nancy Carpenter from 482 Days put their heads together to preview what we’re going to see this weekend. Load up the podcast player, grab your beer tokens, we’ll see you all at the Skydome!

Remember to subscribe to The BOTW Podcast on iTunes HERE (go on, leave us 5 stars) and make sure you let us know what you like on Twitter or the BOTW Facebook page once you’ve listened.

The BOTW Podcast in association with Victory Hockey UK; the news, action and views from the NIHL and all levels above, below and in between.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs Peterborough Phantoms 01/04/18

NIHL 1 South Playoff Final

Basingstoke Bison 2-1 Peterborough Phantoms

Malinik x2                     Padelek

Double it up:

After a close fought 1-1 draw the night before, it seemed that these two sides who were separated in the league table on the fifth tie breaker were once again going to fight out another nail biting encounter. Sometimes the easy story is the one that makes the most sense even if it was an incredibly elongated one thanks to the zamboni issues that saw the first period break last nearly as long as the first period itself. We tip our hat to the rink staff for getting the back up machine going.

In many ways Doug Sheppard brand shutdown hockey is made for the playoffs. Close games that require a bit of “grit your teeth” determination at both ends of the ice are not something that either the Bison or the Phantoms are adverse but the Bison managed to find that little extra something in their attacking play that put them over the line.

The Herd were the better side for the first twenty minutes as they had the better of the attacking chances and pressure though a 5-3 shot count in the Bison’s favour didn’t speak of tons of clear cut chances either way.

The second period saw the visitors step up a gear in their play and their physicality which made lots of sense against a shorter benched Herd side. When the Phantoms goal came it was arguably well deserved but the near immediate response from the Bison reset the home side’s confidence and allowed them to press on.

The third period just ended up being a war of attrition as both sides had their heads down for the finish. The Bison lost Grant Rounding in the second period to a knee issue and so the shorter bench that was already down Joe Baird before the game began switched to trying short, sharp shifts to keep the outskaters as fresh as they possibly could. The visitors started to crash the net and unsettle the Herd but thankfully everyone kept their cool in what had been a flowing game where Mr Matthews had tried to let the on ice action do the talking. Ultimately it was the Bison who held their nerve the best as the extra attacker yielded no reward for the visitors and another trophy celebration on Basingstoke ice.

Roman Malinik was nothing short of superb on this night. Having been almost understated in the quality of her performances over the season this time, with his wife in attendance, the Czech forward kept grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck trying to make things happen. So often the set up man, Malinik was the recipient of very good passes from Grant Rounding and Dan Davies and it was his finishing that proved the difference maker this time around as both his shots left Euan King with no chance.

Dean Skinns had an interesting night; at times like his counterpart, seemingly fighting the puck but the majority of the time he seemed to be dialled in to what was thrown at him. His defence let him see the puck which made the saves easier and whilst the Phantoms’ lone goal was frustrating, it was Skinns’ strength in close in the scramble and with the Phantoms crashing the net that was the reassuring factor. Playoff hockey so often becomes route one and it’s the netminder who is in the firing line. If Skinns is able to stand up to the attention then that bodes well. Sheffield are not known for their finesse.

The lines did get shuffled around after Rounding’s withdrawl but the Antonov, Davies and Karpov line remains one of my favourite things to watch when in full flight. It doesn’t score on every shift but has such a good blend of skill, flair and aggression that it’s impossible to not enjoy watching them play. Then there’s Aaron Connolly who skates through a concrete re-enforced wall at the drop of a hat.

This game could have gone either way but having dragged the title out of the hands of the Phantoms a few weeks ago it was a similar result again as a result of another whole team performance. It’s a second double trophy for success for Doug Sheppard during his tenure as head coach and the coach of the year accolade seems all the more apt.

A word on our opponents:

How the Peterborough Phantoms ended up in the Southern playoff final is not the concern of this piece (check out the latest BOTW podcast for that) but nonetheless, if I was a Phantoms fan I’d be sick to death of the Bison by now.

Nervy edgy games like this play into the Phantoms style but it was a good rather than a great start from the visitors. They just didn’t seem to quite have the attacking bite and whilst some have bemoaned the performances of Darius Pliskauskas this season, Peterborough needed someone with that sort of eye for goal.

However after the lengthy first period break it was the Phantoms who came out stronger in the second frame as they seemed to find an extra gear that they hadn’t had in the first frame. The game on the whole became much more open with both sides getting a bit more space to work with. It’s what gave the Phantoms the space for their goal which Ales Padelek took well. It’s also what gave the Bison the space to respond which was something of a problem.

In the final period the Phantoms upped the physicality again and threw the kitchen sink at the Bison. It just didn’t work. Sometimes you can give everything and it just doesn’t come off. After a lack lustre performance the previous weekend against Swindon, this was a better match up for Peterborough as they stylistically do better against teams like the Bison than they do the Wildcats. Whilst they will be disappointed to lose it’s better than it could have been for them heading into their game with Telford next weekend.

The above mentioned Padelek got the man of the match beers which was fair enough on the balance of play. As the Phantoms’ lone import he needed to make an impact on the game and he did. The defensive corps did a very good job of limiting the Bison at times and whilst Euan King felt like he was struggling with the puck on occasions, he also made some very good saves to keep them in it. Nathan Salem for me remains one of the better power forwards in the league. My only real frustration with the Phantoms’ performance was Will Weldon who should have spent more time concentrating on his play rather than bending the ear of Mr Matthews. He’s a superb player when he does. I don’t blame people for wanting to chat to the ref, Lord knows the Bison do it, but after every play?

The Peterborough Phantoms have now not won since their 2nd leg against Milton Keynes a fortnight ago and yet you cannot count them out of walking out of Coventry with the national playoff title. Slava Koulikov is a good enough coach and this is a good enough team to be able to do that over two games next weekend. Many won’t like that if that happens. The Phantoms won’t care.

Lowlight of the night: A fair few Phantoms seemed to want to bend the ear of the officials but as mentioned above, Weldon’s continued protestations detracted from a good game.

Highlight of the night: Malinik’s second goal and this…

(c) 5 Hole Photography


The BOTW Podcast – episode 71

So, we’re due an episode but the final 4 is next weekend. What can we do?

So it’s a shorter episode; Anthony does a quick wrap-up of where the NIHL playoffs are so far and discusses the “Swindon situation”.

Remember to subscribe to The BOTW Podcast on iTunes HERE (go on, leave us 5 stars) and make sure you let us know what you like on Twitter or the BOTW Facebook page once you’ve listened.

The BOTW Podcast in association with Victory Hockey UK; the news, action and views from the NIHL and all levels above, below and in between.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs London Raiders 25/03/18

NIHL 1 South Playoff semi-final 2nd leg

Basingstoke Bison 3-0 London Raiders

Smith x2 pp

Petts

Basingstoke Bison win 10-4 on aggregate

Rough riders:

If Bison fans are honest, there were some nerves heading into this game. Off of the back of a see-saw battle the previous night in Romford which saw the Bison manage to battle to a 7-4 win the Herd headed into the home game without Dan Scott, lost to a match penalty for a wayward hit on JJ Pitchley and then without Joe Baird due to injury which saw Hallam Wilson guesting on defence. It certainly wasn’t as promising as it could have been. Thankfully the Herd rode out the storm and ultimately ground the game out to a favourable conclusion.

It would be easy having not watched the game to think that this was a close encounter but ultimately there was a slightly bigger gap than the score line dictates. The Bison were greeted with a team being playing a really physical game to disrupt their flow, a not uncommon tactic against them and they were outmuscled. It was hard to get anything going for the Herd but then again, they didn’t really need to. It wasn’t them who needed to score so they keep digging away and eventually, when their opponents started to tire a bit, they struck. Once the Bison had one, it felt like they would get more and that the tie would not be in doubt.

Josh Smith got the man of the match beers for a solid 60 minute effort though, and I’ll happily be corrected on this, I did not see a stick contact on his second goal and was convinced that it was kicked in. That aside Smith had a very good game and this is the sort of game that his style of play is suited for. Smith is a blood and guts player; he’s able to do the fancy stuff when he needs to but what he’s good for is clearing the way for some and going into the sticky spots and making stuff happen; screens the netminder, gets the puck and scores a goal then gets the puck out of a melee in front and shovels it home. Even if that puck was kicked in, that sort of killer instinct in front of goal will see Smith as a shoe in for any 5-a-side team.

The other goal of the game was a fine finish from Paul Petts after some superb work by Roman Malinik. The Czech forward has quietly gone about his work since his arrival in Hampshire but his sheer strength on the puck, his passing ability and what he brings to the roster were all on display in one goal; breaks up the wing, speeds past Nahlik with ease, draws the defender then slips a lovely saucer pass right onto the tape of Petts’ stick. Petts timed his run to perfection and Gray was left with little chance to stop it.

Dean Skinns added yet another shutout to his tally for the year. 23 shots is certainly more than Invicta put on him the previous week and he was certainly tested more. The Bison defence has always been notoriously stingy in letting shots get to Skinns but after something of a wobble the night before, this was the response that the Herd needed from their number 1 netminder, especially two experienced defencemen down.

On that note, it would be remiss of us not to mention Hallam Wilson. I won’t lie; I prefer Hallam Wilson the forward but the young man gave a good accounting of himself on defence. It’s the confidence that was the most reassuring part of the package even if his skating style still spoke more of a forward than of a defenceman.

The Bison’s were not given a free run in this game but they gave a very professional performance. They let the opponents run themselves into the ground and then struck. The Bison would have been absolutely fine with a 0-0 draw so didn’t need to but they wanted to turn the screw and they did. Irrespective of what happened in the other Southern semi-final, the Bison have booked their place in the Southern final and will be back at Coventry for the first national playoff weekender of the new NIHL era. That’s a mission accomplished for the weekend.

A word on our opponents:

We’ll start off with the obvious bits here. Firstly, we wish JJ Pitchley a speedy recovery and it was good to see him at the rink even if he was hobbling about on crutches. Pitchley has had a good year and we hope to see him back soon.

Secondly is the very simple fact (and the Raiders themselves pointed this out on social media) that many people didn’t think they’d be in the position that they ended the season. Everyone predicted a whitewash of 1st-4th for the ex-EPL teams in the league; the Raiders broke it. Many then predicted that the Bees would grind out a playoff win; London said no. When I spoke to Sean Easton on the BOTW Podcast at the start of the season, he was quietly confident about the chances for his team and arguably turned in a coach of the year performance. The Raiders played above themselves this season and that’s what a good team with a good coach can do.

On this night however they had no answer for the extra gear that the Bison had. The first period from the Raiders was not pretty but it was effective and that sort of physicality on its day can and does win hockey games. With a netminding performance like Michael Gray produced for the Raiders, it was almost reminiscent of the old Sheffield Steeldogs side that made the playoffs; grit, heart and a netminder standing on his head.

The problem is that it’s really tough to play that game for 60 minutes. Once the Raiders started to wear out a bit, the Bison drew penalties and capitalised on the space. Whilst they can rightly question the Bison’s second goal they were 8-4 down in the tie at that stage and the tie was heading towards one conclusion.

With no Pitchley or Juraj Huska the Raiders lacked that bit of extra penetration in the attacking zone to really put a bit of fear into the hosts and they didn’t manage that. That’s why they lost. They needed to score and they didn’t.

However their entire season has been a shot across many bows. With a new facility to play hockey in and a coach that seems to get the best out of players it’s difficult not to be optimistic. They were slept on all through the 2017/18 season but when the new campaign begins nobody will sleep on the London Raiders.

Lowlight of the night: Whilst Olegs Lascenko is a superb player, he needs to work on the timing of his hits. Some were unnecessarily late.

Highlight of the night: Apart from Vanya Antonov being picked up off of the ice by John Connolly and his feet wheeling away like he was Scrappy Doo, Malinik to Petts was a lovely goal.


Running with the Herd – Bison vs Invicta Dynamos 17/03/18

NIHL South 1 Playoff Quarter Finals

Basingstoke Bison 6-0 Invicta Dynamos

Mogg

Karpov x2 (1pp)

Reynolds pp

Malinik

Sutton

Repeat:

People talk about the mental change between regular season in hockey and the playoffs. It’s a much different dynamic in British hockey where the regular season takes so much more of a prominent role than in other countries but make no mistake, hockey players are hard wired to understand the concept and when the playoffs begins, things do change. The fact that the Basingstoke Bison had beaten the Invicta Dyanmos the weekend before on their title charge meant next to nothing and the reset button had been hit.

However the Bison took this potential banana skin in their stride. The opposition came in looking to stifle the Herd, clog the passing lanes and hit on the break; not a revolutionary tactic but one that has caused issues. What the Bison managed to do was stay patient, wait for the gaps to appear and then press home their skill advantage and put themselves in a very favourable position heading into the second leg in Kent.

The first period was exactly what the visitors wanted it to be and they worked their game plan to perfection. The problem was they tired out and once Stuart Mogg’s shot found it’s way into the top of the net, a game which had been one way traffic in terms of the chances took on the similar feel of the week before. Regular season or second season, the Dynamos didn’t have a 60 minute answer for the Herd’s pace or skill and Damian King could only stop so many shots.

People might have wondered why it took so long for the Bison to score given they scored 10 against them the week before but many seemed to forget that it’s literally a different game. BOTW has long wondered why the Bison under Doug Sheppard didn’t run the score up on teams to improve things like goal difference or to make a statement. They did that last week because they had to. Last night they didn’t need to and didn’t. They got themselves a result that puts them in a position to achieve their goal; make the next round.

Kurt Reynolds got man of the match which was fair enough given his goal though any of the five defencemen would have been worthy of the beers given how they managed to nullify the Dynamos’ attack. Limiting a side to 9 shots is impressive at the best of times but coupled with doing it at the start of the playoffs and contributing two off the 6 goals, the blueliners certainly did the business on this night.

Once the Herd had found their breakthrough, they started to seem much more comfortable and it freed up not just the Karpovs and Connollys but the lower end guys to try things. Whilst he didn’t score, Grant Rounding was playing with an added creativity that we’ve not seen for a while. Paul Petts’ grinding was creating chances and Hallam Wilson continues to have an eye for goal even if you do wonder how many men he will try to skate through.

Tomas Karpov’s two goals were utter laser shots that King had no chance with, the same as Roman Malinik’s strike which if he’d hit any sweeter would have gone through the net and hit the back wall. Ryan Sutton was given a very literal birthday gift; the puck deflecting off of the glove of King and landing on the end of his stick for the tap in.

The Bison had a job to do on this night and they did it. It wasn’t pretty at points but it was job done, or at least half done. Nothing is over until it is over.

A word on our opponents:

Credit has to go to the Invicta Dynamos and coach Kevin Parrish; they learned from the previous week. They learned that giving the Bison space on home ice is a bad idea and from the outset tried to clog the passing lanes, quickly collapse in front of Damian King and just generally get in the way. When the sides headed into the first period at 0-0, the visitors were looking handy if not deadly on the break.

The problems for Invicta were twofold; the first was that their game plan was fine for twenty minutes but they didn’t have the legs to last for 60 minutes doing the same thing. That happens; it’s been a long season and teams tire. The bigger issue was that they got zero attacking penetration going forward. This was Dean Skinns’ 6th shutout of the season and on the lowest number of shots that he’s faced to get one. 9 shots in a playoff game, even if you’re at a point where the objective is to not get thumped, is poor given some of the attacking power that they have.

Damian King got the beers for making sure that the game didn’t end up as another cricket score, an all the more impressive performance given that he didn’t take the warm-up. Mason and Brandon Webster continued to put themselves about and got noticed. Credit has to go to the Websters for skating that hard for 60 minutes and pinballing around like there’s no tomorrow in what was a lost cause. I won’t deny that Mason is one of my favourite players to watch and his running battle with Joe Baird was one of my highlights of the evening.

Can the Dynamos come back from a 6 goal deficit at home? I would say that it’s incredibly unlikely. In their 5 meetings with the Herd this season the Kent side have come close at home but have struggled to find a way to get at the Herd. A close game will not help Invicta this evening, they need to blow the game open and blow it open early. The form book does not read in their favour however the reigning playoff champions will not give up their crown without having some say.

Lowlight of the night: The first period was obviously planned from Invicta’s standpoint but it wasn’t an entertaining watch.

Highlight of the night: Malinik’s goal, if only for that moment of realisation from Elliott Dewey, “I could shoot or let this massive Czech lad steaming in do it instead. Hmm…I’ll take the assist.”