Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 1/12/12

Basingstoke Bison 5-2 Manchester Phoenix

A. Melachrino x 2        Pozivil

Cesky x 2                   Long

Sheppard

 

The masterplan strikes again: Bison went into the game without the injured Joe Greener and Kurt Reynolds with Kris Melachrino scratched from the lineup. James Hutchinson was added to the lineup for the Herd. Manchester’s only change was Shannon Long as the backup netminder in place of Jorge El-Hage.

The game settled into its rhythm quite quickly with Manchester getting a lot of early chances and setting up the cycle but they couldn’t find a way through the defence. It was a case of who would blink first. Manchester blinked. Zach Sullivan flicked the puck to Joe Rand who broke away down the right wing, held off his man and laid off a centring feed for Andy Melachrino to redirect the puck past Stephen Fone into the net at 3:10.

Manchester went right back to the task in hand and the Bison were again camped in their zone trying to create chances but Lyle kept making saves. The Phoenix were creating space, the best chance coming off some very neat passing that found Ciaran Long in the slot on his own but the former Bison forward could only fire high.

The Bison kept weathering the storm and eventually burned the Phoenix again. Having shaken off an early knock to his ankle, Doug Sheppard skated out of the Bison zone with the puck. He drew the defender to him and held onto the puck. Then he held a bit more, then a bit more before firing back across goal to Jaroslav Cesky who had all the time in the world to fire into half an open net. 2-0 and the home crowd was in high spirits.

Shortly after that Michael Psurny walked in and fired. He thought he had scored, assuming his shot had gone in and rebounded off of the back post inside the goal. Arms aloft he protested his case but the puck never went in, instead going high, wide and into the corner. The Phoenix kept up the pressure, even being given a late powerplay chance when Greg Owen was called for hooking. They got the powerplay working and the passing was crisp but couldn’t get that killer touch at the end. (Sound familiar?) Sheppard and Chambers also combined for a good short handed but the later could only fire past the far post. The first period ended with the Bison 2-0 up, with the two goals coming off just 6 shots on Fone.

Manchester reacted by flying out of the gate for the second period with more purpose and got an immediate reward for it. Psurny and Flaten led the Phoenix into the zone and with the Bison lining up to deal with the forwards, Ondrej Pozivil got away from James Smith for Flaten to drop off the puck to him, letting the Czech defenceman fire a lovely wrist shot through traffic into the top corner over Lyle’s glove.

After that the game reverted back to the model of the first period but the Phoenix seemed to have the jump on the Bison. The hosts seemed a bit less controlled in their defensive play than they had been in the first 20 minutes. When Sullivan was called for elbowing James Archer at the 26 minute mark, many were fearing the worst and the Phoenix threw everything and the kitchen sink at the Bison net but Lyle kept making the saves and the PK unit stood firm.

The Bison reacted by trying to claw their way back into the game and thought they’d found an opening. Joe Miller, showing no signs of worry following his injury led the charge to the net and tried to poke the puck past Fone as both sets of players rushed towards the crease. The Phoenix netminder was saved by the net coming off its moorings and irony proved that it wasn’t dead. Shortly after however the Bison found their way through. Joe Rand’s excellent work on the forecheck won the puck and the Canadian looked to fire the puck to the top of the crease but it ricocheted off of a Phoenix defenceman’s skate right into the slot. Andy Melachrino skated onto the puck with nobody within 10 feet of him, picked the top corner of Fone’s net and put the puck there for his second of the night.

Chambers and Miller had chances to extend the Bison lead shortly afterwards but Fone stood resolute in the Phoenix night and Bison settled back into their defensive mode.

Manchester kept pushing and pushing; another powerplay chance went by the wayside. Luke Boothroyd then released a massive shot from the blueline that took the mask clean off Lyle’s head. It took a great bit of individual play to give the visitors their breakthrough. James Neil skated over the blueline, holding his marker at bay all the way down the right wing before passing the puck to the centre and allowing Long to redirect the puck past Lyle to make it 3-2.

Phoenix were back on the powerplay shortly afterwards and the home crowd was getting very nervous. The guests looked like they were nearly in a position to wrestle the tie away from the Bison. Hand fired a fantastic pass right across the seem to James Neil sneaking in at the back door but his shot could only find the outside of the post as Lyle dived across to attempt the pad stack save. Bison again weathered the storm and a late penalty call on Boothroyd for holding onto Cesky saw the Bison see off the period. It had been Manchester’s period but the Bison had a chance to regroup and still held the 3-2 lead into the final stanza.

The 3rd period started with the Bison still on the powerplay and many in the crowd thinking the Bison needed to take their chance while it was presented to them. A mistake in the Phoenix defence allowed Chambers to send Sheppard in on Fone .The Bison player/coach deked then fired a backhand shot past Fone into the net; 4-2, the Bison had their 2 goal advantage back, the heads of the Phoenix players dropped a bit and the Herd started to squeeze the life out of the game.

The 3rd period started then to look a lot like the first with Manchester having most of the puck possession as Sheppard’s game plan allows but with Lyle able to see all the shots coming, he made all the saves he needed to.

Things started to get a little chippy, Michal Psurny showing more frustration than most as his on-running battle with Alex Symonds threatened to boil over with the two taking a variety of little shots at each other and exchanging words.

The Bison however fully killed off the tie shortly afterwards; Sheppard made the short pass to James Smith who fired a beautiful saucer pass to Cesky. With Jaro in behind his man, there was only one outcome as he made a little move then slotted past Fone to make it 5-2 with 7 and a half minutes to go.

The rest of the game played itself out without much incident bar the occasional Phoenix chance and a lovely hipcheck by Alex Symonds on Ben Duggan against the boards. Time wound down with Phoenix on a late powerplay but the day was lost to them. The buzzer sounded and a very loud and appreciative crowd took a few moments to sink in the situation that the Bison were now 6 points clear atop the EPL.

 

The system works: Having not been present last weekend in Manchester when the Bison reportedly played a similar plan to last night, I have to confess I felt very conflicted in a good way. The analytical side of me that was thinking of what I was going to have to write was loving it; that was a cracking game of hockey to watch from beginning to end. It was a clash of styles and had some great goals. The fan in me had pretty much gnawed my fingers down to the knuckle by the end of the 2nd period.

It is a total team effort to play a system like that. Picking a man of the match out of it was very difficult from a Bison perspective but Sheppard was as good a choice as any; his goal at the start of the 3rd period was what allowed the Bison to put their boot on the throat of the Phoenix and begin to squeeze the life out of the tie. He also took a nasty knock that saw him hobble off the ice but carry on.

The line of Rand, Melachrino and Smith was arguably our best line of the night, Rand again showing why any doubts he could play at this level were unfounded. The Canadian set up two goals (albeit the second of those was more by luck than judgement) and generally played his game to perfection within the confines of what Coach Sheppard is asking them to do. Smith did all the hard work and his pass to Cesky for the 5th goal was picture perfect. He had a couple of chances for his first goal but just couldn’t put it away but you have to think that it’s coming. As for Melachrino, I’ve said for a while that hard work gets rewarded in hockey and those two goals were well taken reward for his work ethic. He got himself into the needed positions and made the most of his increased ice time.

Lyle as ever was stellar in net, making save after save when called upon however the defence was also top notch, limiting the Phoenix to mostly chances that Lyle would normally stop given half a chance. James Hutchinson’s debut performance was a little rusty but the Bison are a different team from the Phantoms and he deserves the same grace we gave to Smith last week with regards to settling in.

The whole team deserves a pat on the back for that performance. Whilst running the Bison twitter for updates, I mentioned that Lyle kept making the saves to which someone responded “one man team springs to mind?” With all due respect to the person who tweeted that, that performance was not the work of one man but a team. You can’t slice that any other way.

 

A word on our opponents: It bares saying again that Manchester are the best side I’ve seen at Basingstoke this season. The depth on the bench there speaks volumes for why that team will be there at the business end of the season. The issue was again, that they were faced with a game plan but couldn’t really find a way to counter it.

Phoenix fans look at the shot count (37-22) and all the chances they had and wonder why they didn’t win. It’s because the chances they had were the ones that they were allowed to have for the most part. Shooting at a keeper of Lyle’s quality from the outside is never going to work that well. Despite knowing what they had to do, i.e. get in Lyle’s face, they weren’t allowed to do it nor did they really go for it when they arguably had the Bison on the ropes a bit in the second period.

That’s not to say they didn’t try to create the chances. The passing was crisp and they constantly threatened but got hit on the counter time and time again and when your keeper is not having a great night against a team this good, you won’t win. Fone is a good keeper at this level and I’m not normally one for using the shot count as a concrete benchmark for anything but 2 goals on 6 shots in the 1st period and 2 goals on 5 shots in the third are not great numbers. I understand Fone has been playing with an injury and why Hand would have played him in such a big game. He also wasn’t really at fault for the goals to a large degree, the defence leaving him high and dry on a few occasions.

Phoenix fans however should resist the temptation to write the season off just yet. That’s a team that will win a lot of hockey games this season but they now can’t win the season series with the Bison and that could be crucial come March. They can only hope that something happens along the way to allow them to give them back a chance for that lost tiebreaker to not cost them something bigger than bragging rights.

 

Lowlight of the night: I could pick the officiating here but I won’t, inconsistent though it was but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I’ll choose the first Phoenix goal, was an avoidable situation but as I’ve said before if you’re going to concede a goal at least let it be pretty.

 

Highlight of the night: Sheppard’s goal; Cesky’s second was prettier but Shep’s was the more important.

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