Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 4/1/13

Basingstoke Bison 5-2 Manchester Phoenix

Melachrino                   Cesky

Connolly pp                  Kovar

Rand pp

Karpov x 2

 

Not a bad start to the year: The Bison headed into this top of the table clash still without Kurt Reynolds but Danny Ingoldsby returned from training with GB u18s and Joe Rand’s ankle had deflated enough to fit into a skate so he was back. With Joe Miller having now departed, his place as alternate captain has been filled by Aaron Connolly. Manchester were faced with something of a major issue; Jaroslav Cesky was dressed in place of Frankie Bakrlik but with a virus keeping Stephen Fone at home and Jorge El-Hage having resigned due to work commitments, the Phoenix added Paul Maudsley from the Manchester Minotaurs to play in net.

The Phoenix’s gameplan was somewhat clear from the outset; protect Maudsley and hit on the counter when the chance arose due to having the superior speed in their forward lines. The Bison took the chance to press and tested Maudsley early, a Ciaran Long backhand shot came closest, deflecting off of the knob on the handle of the netminder’s stick. The breakthrough though did come quickly. The hosts were pressing hard in the Phoenix zone with the puck bobbling in traffic in front of the net. Unfortunately for Manchester the puck fell into the slot where a waiting Andy Melachrino fired a wrist shot into the net at 04:03.

The Phoenix attempted to respond quickly and had a great chance when James Neil walked out of the corner unopposed but was held at bay by Dean Skinns.

The Bison had a powerplay handed to them by Andy McKinney for highsticking just before the halfway point of the period but couldn’t capitalise on the chance. Maudsley was making saves and getting a lot of protection from the defence whereas the Bison at times seemed to want to walk the puck into the net. Tomas Karpov was on fine form but couldn’t find the net in the first frame, even trying an audacious from a ludicrous angle that rang off of the goalpost. Maudsley was called into action as well, acrobatically making a save from a tipped point shot.

After watching Nicky Chinn undress James Neil, the Phoenix pressed on the attack. With the Bison pressing high looking for the second goal, they were getting caught on the break but some fine defensive work from Karpov and Melachrino saw Manchester forwards pick pocketed and the plays break down.

Both sides had chances as the period wound down; Manchester going for a simple move from the practice session that was deflected into the air and caught by Skinns and Sheppard had a good chance in front of Maudsley but the period ended 1-0 to the Bison and the Phoenix still looking dangerous and in the contest.

When Liam Chong knocked Miroslav Vantroba to the ice and the Phoenix started the second period on the front foot, it looked like the infamous “second period sleep” might be about to make an appearance but the Bison weathered the majority of the storm. Long and Karpov responded with a good chance but the Czech forward couldn’t convert the pass on the doorstep. An uncharacteristic misplayed pass from Zach Sullivan put the puck right on the stick of Tony Hand. The Phoenix player/coach fed Michal Psurny but Skinns was equal to the shot.

The Herd were sent to the powerplay thanks to Robin Kovar being called for a slash and the hosts took full advantage. With the extra space allowed Long fed Connolly who took a step and the newly minted alternate captain fired past Maudsley to double the advantage at 25:59.

It quickly got worse for the Phoenix. First Tony Hand was called hooking and it took the Bison all of 22 seconds to put another tally on the board. Ciaran Long fired a shot off the bottom of the post that rebounded slowly back through Maudsley’s legs for the Manchester man to turn around and watch Joe Rand reach around and poke the puck over the line to make it 3-0 at 28:22. The Phoenix took the timeout to try and steady the ship but it didn’t really help. As the Phoenix tried to clear the zone, Joe Greener batted the puck down and caught the visitors flat footed. From the halfboards he fired a pass into the slot for Tomas Karpov to one time the shot past Maudsley for 4-0 at 30:04.

The Phoenix were reeling and Karpov was on the hunt for his second goal but a trademark trip around the back of the net didn’t produce the result as Maudsley managed to freeze the puck after a brief wobble.

The period was summed up for the Phoenix during their only powerplay of the frame. Connolly picked off a pass and was away leaving Tony Hand standing stationary at the centre line throwing his hands in the air shouting at Robert Schnabel rather than chasing the Bison man down. Luckily for Hand, Connolly’s shot was saved by Maudsley for what was his biggest save of the night. The second period ended with Basingstoke fully in control and whoever runs the Phoenix twitter account searching for a stiff drink.

The travelling fans however were given a treat at the start of the period; a tripping call against Sheppard gave the Phoenix some room to move the puck around. With the penalty having just expired the puck was put back to Robin Kovar at the point and his low shot was deflected past Skinns by Jaroslav Cesky at 42:36.

The Bison seemed to be taking their foot off of the gas and were getting caught by the Phoenix, nobody more so than Long who was upended by a textbook open ice hip check by Kovar. Many in the crowd felt it was a bit late and verging on interference but the hit itself was great and neither Mr Cloutman or Mr Thompson raised their arm.

Then the Phoenix were suddenly given a glimmer of hope; the Phoenix pressed and pressed and with the puck loose in front of Skinns it was bundled over the line by Kovar at 49:00 to bring some noise from travelling fans and brought the Bison fans to the edge of their seat.

The visitors smelt blood and looked set to make it a one goal game on the powerplay with Joe Baird sitting for slashing. With Skinns drawn out of position behind the net, the puck found its way to James Archer at the top of the crease with an open net but he scuffed the shot and the puck trickled wide to the disbelief of everyone.

The crowd however were stunned into silence when a massive pointshot from a Phoenix player slammed right into the front of Dean Skinns’ mask. The Bison netminder was down and took his time getting to his feet but after shaking the cobwebs clear managed to continue in the contest.

Shortly after however came the final nail in the Phoenix’s coffin for the night. Tomas Karpov picked the puck up and raced down ice. Having blown past Hand, the Czech forward wound up and blasted the puck through Maudsley to make it 5-2 at 52:23 which brought cheers and sighs of relief in equal measure from the home fans.

The Phoenix resorted to some unusual tactics as one of their forwards caught the puck and threw it at the net (he missed) but Karpov’s second goal had ended the game as a contest it seemed with a few chances each way.

Near the end of the game however we saw a bit of rebellion against what I and many other people feel is one of the least favourite rules in the EPL. Carl Graham accidentally clipped Liam Chong with a high stick which drew blood and the requisite 5+match penalty from the officials. Chong was swiftly patched up to the point that he wasn’t profusely bleeding and was sent out for a couple of shifts by Tony Hand to ensure the match penalty was downgraded. Chong literally skated on and skated off but the Phoenix ensured that Graham can play against Telford. More on that in a bit.

The buzzer sounded on an important win for the Bison with respect to the league title and the fact that the Phoenix have 3 games in hand but importantly a happy home crowd.

 

You can only beat what’s there to beat: This game was an anomaly because of the Manchester netminding situation but the rest of the Phoenix team was there in force and they were, bar that wobble in the third period, handily dispatched.

Tomas Karpov was an obvious choice for man of the match because he was the best player on the ice by a stretch. This was one of the games where Karpov’s pedigree of having played at levels well above the EPL were on display and he looked certain to score before he fired in his two tallies for the night. He was a constant threat, constantly trying to create and was defensively responsible. Karpov and Andy Melachrino were both on fine form, the later taking his goal very well and continuing his excellent run of form. Combined with the right power forward (BOTW’s Mo-Master judge Hannah Farmer argues Michael Wales would be ideal) Karpov and Melachrino are causing some serious headaches for defences across the EPL

The return of Joe Rand to the lineup was a real crowd pleaser. Rand took his goal well and looked like he normally did; worked hard, put himself about and did his job well. On an unfamiliar line with Joe Greener and Doug Sheppard, the line didn’t quite seem to click. Whilst Greener played well (his assist for Karpov’s first goal was particularly well worked), it was a lack lustre night from the Bison player coach who is now without a point since the 5-0 win in Bracknell on 22nd December and a goal since before that. How Sheppard changes things given his own scoreless run remains to be seen.

The defence and Dean Skinns played well but the netminder wasn’t helped greatly by the team taking their foot off of the gas in the third period, particularly for the Phoenix’s second goal. It would have been nice in some ways to watch the Phoenix really put to the sword but that’s not how this team plays. They’re out to beat opponents rather than embarrass them.

Either way, a win is a win and when it comes to fellow title challengers we’ll take them however they come.

A word on our opponents: I wouldn’t blame Phoenix fans from instantly just writing the game off as a bad job. The entire game plan centred around defending Paul Maudsley who, sadly isn’t quite at EPL standard. That said he gave his all, made some decent saves and at times wasn’t really given a lot of help from his defence, particularly in the second period. As mentioned, the fact that the Phoenix player/coach stood at half way yelling at his defenceman rather than chasing down the man to help his netminder out summed up the middle stanza rather well. That criticism of Hand should be tempered by his and Liam Chong’s show of sportsmanship at the end of the game to ensure the downgrading of Graham’s penalty. That said if clubs are actively seeking to circumvent the penalty for high sticks that draw blood, the EIHA needs to actually do something about it and follow the EIHL’s lead and make it a 2+2.

Robin Kovar was really the only choice for man of the match for the Phoenix on the balance of the 60 minutes. I was fully prepared to give it to Maudsley after 40 minutes because he was the only player performing to or beyond his ability but Kovar turned it on for the last twenty minutes and made the impression that made him the really sensible choice.

The Phoenix started the game with their backs to the wall and never really left that position but they came out, tried to make the best of a bad situation and it didn’t really come off. We can’t really read too much into this game in terms of the challenge the Phoenix will offer in the three remaining fixtures between the sides or for any trophies. All we do know is that it will be considerably different than last night.

Lowlight of the night: The Phoenix’s second goal, it was avoidable.

Highlight of the night: Karpov’s goal was prettier but the return of Joe Rand and his goal is arguably more important for the Bison as a side.

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