Beer, Balloons and Banter; the 2012 EPL Playoff Finals weekend

Whilst the league championship is arguably the most coveted prize in the EPL, the playoff weekend is arguably the real showcase event that the league offers. I went up for the Saturday and the semi finals last year but this year I bit the bullet and bought a weekend ticket. I’ll run down my experience of the weekend both the hockey and the fun surrounding it.

 

Friday:

Having sprinted out of work and hopped onto the train, I arrived in Coventry to be greeted by Britain’s only cyborg goalie, Paul Shipman (who wrote this blog’s tribute to Wade Belak) who would be my host for the weekend along with his wife Becky. Friday was a nice, easy night with meatballs, friends (Ignite Magazine deputy editor Stuart Coles and his wife Kerry) and beer in front of NHL Gamecenter on the TV. Paul was jokingly calling this weekend “Hockeypalooza” which wouldn’t be far from the truth. It served as a good warm up for what was to come.

 

Saturday:

So here we were, semi finals day in Coventry. After running a few errands (supplies, breakfast) and more hockey on Gamecenter, we rounded up the troops and headed into Coventry city centre. Paul, Becky, Becky’s mum Leslie and her friend Sue were all joining the ranks of the Herd for the weekend with the ladies even wearing Bison jerseys for the occasion. Paul, as the Bison had failed to make the weekend went for his Ottawa Senators jersey; insert your insults here and we’ll move on.

All good pregame stuff on finals weekend can generally be found in one pub, the Old Windmill. The beers on tap are good quality, the food is nice and it’s become the favourite haunt of hockey fans due to its proximity to the Skydome. Once again the Windmill’s front room had been taken over by Ben Knight and the crew of the Official Manchester Phoenix Podcast who were broadcasting live. Lunch of venison sausage and sautéed mushroom baguettes were washed down with a beverage and a bit of banter with the Phoenix fans sitting around us before I did my turn on the podcast alongside presenter the honourable Mr Knight and friend of the blog Mark Woodcock aka The Angry Budgie. Needless to say, my predictions were terrible in the grand scheme. After a few laughs it was down to the serious business as everyone headed for the Skydome.

 

Semi final 1: Guildford Flames vs. Slough Jets

From a Bison fan perspective it was a case of pick your poison for me as I’m not a huge fan of either organisation but it was easy for my Coventry supporting friends to decide who to cheer for. Aside from former Blaze legend Adam Calder playing for Slough, Blaze fans do not like Guildford. By that I mean they will literally cheer for anyone else but Guildford so the lines were drawn quite early on in this one.

For the Flames this was the start of completing the puzzle. Already league and cup winners for this season, the Flames were aiming to be the first team to do the EPL grandslam since Peterborough did so in 2008. The plan however took a sharp turn when 35 seconds into the game a Flames player checked Jets forward Dan Davies into Lee. Lee went over awkwardly and was clearly in a lot of pain very quickly. The former Newcastle netminder was down on the ice for many minutes whilst he was seen to by medical staff before eventually being stretchered off the ice to a standing ovation from those in attendance to be replaced by James Hadfield. The Jets however didn’t try to press the obvious advantage they now had. They looked flat out of the gate and were eventually punished as Josef Kohut was left alone at the top of the crease to fire past Gregg Rockman at 8:53. Things went from bad to worse as the Jets, looking like the lacked any sort of cohesion got burned by a blueline rocket from Jez Lundin at 12:51. 2-0 and the Flames looked like they were going walk away with it. Slough started fighting back into the game in the second period and eventually got a break when Ryan Watt got in tight and fired past Hadfield to make it 2-1 at the second break. The 3rd started and as the Bison fans started another round of their “anyone but Guildford” chant (that was possibly started by Paul and myself) Slough got the spark they needed as Aaron Connolly fired a laser past Hadfield at 42:12 that the young netminder should really have stopped. The momentum shifted and the Jets made all the running. Flames were on the back foot and defending resolutely but unfortunately you felt the goal was coming and it did. Ryan Watt appeared again to fire into the net for the game winner, crushing the hopes of a grand slam for the Surrey faithful.

 

Only one place to go between games in Coventry; the Noodle Bar! While most headed to the pub, we headed to one of my favourite places to eat in Coventry for a £7 bowl of chicken satay with fried noodles that would have satisfied even the hungriest man. Then it was the dash back to the rink for the highly anticipated encounter of the weekend.

 

Semi final 2: Sheffield Steeldogs vs. Manchester Phoenix

This was always going to be the Andre Payette show. Love him or hate him, the EPL coach of the year knows how to play the pantomime villain as people even started getting at him in the warm up. Not popular for their tactics in the quarter finals, some Bison fans were booing along as well as wearing donkey ears. Personally I think Sheffield deserved all the credit in the world for what they achieved during the season and I wanted them to make the final so I didn’t join in. The Phoenix fans were in fine voice as well and were singing away from the first minute which saw Payette take his first penalty of the game (along with James Archer) who got a slashing call at 14 seconds. I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.

It was a very nervy first few minutes as the teams started feeling each other out but it was the Steeldogs who struck first. They couldn’t take advantage of the powerplay but maintained the pressure in the zone and Greg Wood managed to poke the puck past Stephen Fone in the Phoenix net at 8:14. The lead however didn’t last long. With 10:37 on the clock, the Manchester powerplay worked its magic as the shot came in and Stephen Wallace managed to tip the puck through Bowns who couldn’t close his legs in time. Steeldogs lost Ashley Calvert to a 5+match shortly after for high sticking Ladislav Harabin and drawing blood which drew the ire of my Coventry based friends and me because that rule is nothing short of stupid. It changed the momentum of the first period and Sheffield, tired from defending so much let in 2 carbon copy goals as first James Archer then Martin Cingel were left unmarked in front of Bowns to fire the puck home. 3-1 after 20 minutes and some felt it was already over at that point. Sheffield pulled back to 3-2 through Edgars Bebris at 25:31 to make it 3-2 but Manchester were making all the running and getting all the chances. With Bowns being hung out to dry by his defence, Ciaran Long’s shot trickled through Bowns at 32:55 to make it 4-2. Then the fun really started.

At the end of the 2nd period after the buzzer Lee Haywood of Sheffield went down in a heap (slashed by Martin Cingel as it turns out) and there was pandemonium on the ice. The officials tried to maintain control but there were scuffles and punches thrown all over the place as they tried to get both teams off the ice. Steeldogs backup goalie Dimitri Zimozdra thumped Long in the back of the head with his blocker and eventually Payette and Long threw a couple of blows. As Payette was being escorted off the ice after the fight someone from the crowd threw a drink into his face. Whilst it was reportedly MK Lightning’s Grant McPherson, this has not been confirmed. I did see Payette receive his uninvited drink and he looked utterly furious about it. The whole scene was turning ugly quickly and Roman Szuchs looked like he could have had a full on brawl on and off the ice to contend with. Luckily it died down but the action on the ice wasn’t done.

James Archer scored the Phoenix’s 5th goal at 44:29 and that seemed to be all she wrote. The Manchester fans were singing away, happy as Larry but it was all too premature. Payette made it 5-3 at 55:13 which amused a few people, 5-3 wasn’t going to be enough for Sheffield. Only problem was Ben Morgan drove a beautiful shot past Fone at 53:35 and all of a sudden it was game on. Some of the crowd started cheering the Steeldogs on wanting overtime while Manchester fans started biting their nails. Then, with Bowns pulled in the last minute Morgan drove the puck home again. 5-5 and stunned silence filled the Skydome. Overtime couldn’t separate them so penalties it was. After goals from Janis Ozolins and Juraj Faith had the scores at 1-1 in the shootout, it was Wallace again who fired Manchester into the final with a brilliant wrist shot over Bowns’ shoulder to send the 500 odd Phoenix fans behind the goal into raptures. It was arguably the most entertaining game many of us have seen for a while.

 

Saturday night was back to the Shipman residence for…you guessed it, hockey and beer. Luckily the Capitals prevailed in double overtime so I went to sleep a happy boy.

 

Sunday

Sunday morning started the way all good Sundays should; fried food and friends. As we trawled through the previous evening’s NHL games we were treated to a Cumberland square sausage and smoked bacon sandwich with HP Guinness sauce which was met with hearty approval. Sadly Paul wasn’t feeling well so as we headed out to the under 18s final, we scrambled to find someone to fill the ticket.

 

EIHA Under 18s national final: Sheffield Steelhawks vs. Guildford Phoenix

I won’t go into great detail about this game as with Paul being ill, we missed the first period but the 40 minutes I did see were very entertaining. Both teams were clearly up for the game. Guildford, coached by Flames legend Milos Melicherik looked like a good team but seemed to lack the lethal edge in front of net. Sheffield seemed to play less of a team game but did have a lot of individuals with superb skills. Elliott Knell scored a hattrick for the Steelhawks and Tom Proctor and Luke Unwin crushed anything with a pulse as Sheffield won the final 5-3. Louisa Durnell won the man of the match for the Phoenix.

 

With the under 18s final over, there was an hour to kill before the big one and we were joined by Paul’s dad John, only too happy at the prospect of free hockey. The rink started filling up and the nerves were clear in the faces of Jets and Phoenix fans after the day before. The rink also started filling up with balloons. Big ones, small ones, literally tons from all sides. Even a few extra large rocket balloons started appearing in the Bison block as well. Before too long however the lights went down and it was time to go.

 

EPL Playoff Final: Manchester Phoenix vs. Slough Jets

The final got off to a very tense start as both teams wanted to see where the other was after the day before. The Jets came out of the blocks the stronger of the two sides, clearly buoyed after their win the day before and in complete contrast to how they had started the semi final. The Phoenix looked up for it but a little tired. The Phoenix fans weren’t tired in the slightest as when Andre Payette passed under the fans on his way to the bar he was greeted with a chance of “beer’s upside your head.” The Manchester fans get points for originality.

The Jets were the team making the running and looked the aggressive. Adam Greener earned the admiration of many when he cleaned out Tony Hand with, what I thought was a legal hit behind the Jets net but referee Roman Szuchs called as a 2+10 for checking to the head. This didn’t phase the Jets who managed to get themselves into a 5on3 powerplay situation. Some good passing play led to space for Adam Calder to blast the puck past Fone from the blueline at 15:26 then with Jets still on the man advantage, Dan Davies fired goalwards and player/coach Doug Shepherd tipped the puck past Fone at 16:25. Phoenix weren’t going to go quietly and Ciaran Long, back in his office at the top of the crease managed to get a rebounded shot past Gregg Rockman at 18:29 to make it 2-1 Jets as the first break rolled around.

Period 2 was more of the same for the Jets as they looked to take a stranglehold on the game. The Phoenix were sticking to their game plan but appeared to lack the spark they’d had the night before and you had to wonder if the titanic battle with the Steeldogs had left the tank empty but they were still very much in the game. Then, a stroke of fortune for the Jets. Joe Greener took Jaroslav Spelda out with what looked to be part trip, part slewfoot which wasn’t called by Szuchs. The Jets broke down the other end and Darius Pliskauskas lasered a shot into the back of the net at 38:38 to make it 3-1 Jets. Manchester needed to start the 3rd with a bang but didn’t get the chance. Pliskauskas hammered home his second, Slough’s 4th and from there Manchester had chances but never looked like scoring. As time ticked down, the Phoenix fans cheered their team on till the very end but it was Slough who secured their 2nd playoff title in 3 years with Pliskauskas picking up their man of the match. Ciaran Long took the honours for Manchester.

 

After the final, there was time for a cup of tea and a sandwich before heading home, thoroughly satisfied with how the weekend had gone.

 

Thoughts

Overall, whilst I’ll never be one to overly sing their praises the best team at the weekend won. Despite having looked lost at sea in the first period of the semi final Slough Jets showed the determination and, as The Angry Budgie labelled it, playoff savy needed to overcome the obstacles.

The best game of the weekend however for entertainment value was the second semi final between Manchester and Sheffield which had a bit of everything; nice goal, hard hits, a bit of controversy, a bit of rough stuff, some cracking saves and a heart stopping finale. Ryan Finnerty was in attendance and hopefully realised how absurd his recent comments about Ben Bowns not being as good as Geoff Woolhouse were. Bowns’ overtime save from James Archer was simply phenomenal.

The Bison fans, all 200 of us gave a great account of ourselves. Whilst I bemoan the booing of Sheffield, everyone seemed to have a good time and only made us more hungry to see our boys there in 2013.

 

Thanks to Paul and Becky Shipman for their hospitality, Leslie Murray for the breakfast and the fudge, John Shipman and Sue for coming along for the ride, Stu and Kerry Coles and, as always the fans of the 10 EPL teams. See you all along the way.

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