Running with the Herd – Manchester Phoenix vs Bison 6/4/14Posted: 09/04/2014
EPL Playoff Final
Manchester Phoenix 3-5 Basingstoke Bison
Kovar x 2 (1pp) Long
Archer Rand (ps)
Our time: The Bison headed into the game the same as the day before. Manchester entered the contest with the same lineup as they had for their semi final against Swindon; Jack Watkins and Liam Chong sat out with injury and Tony Hand added Jared Dickenson to the roster. James Neil was rumoured to miss out but played, reportedly with a broken toe.
The Phoenix had the best of the early chances as they put rubber on Dean Skinns early. Robert Schnabel was set up for a customary huge blueline drive that the Bison backstop plucked out of the air with a crowd in front of him. Basingstoke were responding by hitting anything on the ice wearing a Phoenix logo as the Herd, in their red away cup jerseys looked to try and knock Manchester’s skill players off their game.
The Bison started to get going and got some good chances of their own; Doug Sheppard was denied on the wrap around and a Kurt Reynolds shot was turned away by Stephen Fone in the Phoenix net. Joe Baird went even close as his shot hit the edge of Fone’s glove but deflected away into the corner.
The Bison were caught out shortly afterwards as Frankie Bakrlik managed to break out and headed straight for the Bison net. One on one with Dean Skinns, the Phoenix’s semi final match winner made a move but Skinns made the initial save. With EPL all star Michal Psurny baring down, Skinns again stood strong and made the second stop to keep the score at 0-0.
The Bison then had to deal with the added pressure of being a man down when Andy Melachrino was called for slashing. The Bison made their protests known after feeling a couple of interference calls had been missed but the Phoenix were heading to the powerplay. The Bison managed to keep the league champions at bay, punctuated by a massive hit on Robin Kovar by Kurt Reynolds.
When back to full strength, the Bison forecheck managed to force a turnover in the Phoenix zone. The Herd crashed the net but Fone stood strong on his post and kept the puck out. The Phoenix backstop was called into more action as Richard Bentham was called for slashing as the Bison looked for an opening. Tomas Karpov tried a soft, angled shot similar to one that saw him score on Dalibor Sedlar in the quarter finals but Fone was equal to the effort.
The Phoenix came back and got a string of shots on Dean Skinns but the first buzzer sounded with the score locked at 0-0 after 20 minutes of enthralling hockey.
Manchester had the first good shot of the second period and when Richard Bentham got a little too close to Dean Skinns, Joe Baird stepped in and the two had a word but little else. This wasn’t going to be a game where things got out of hand. There was too much at stake.
Whilst all players on both sides were putting their bodies on the line, Nicky Chinn clearly wasn’t expecting a late and illegal looking hit from a Phoenix player but neither Mr Thompson nor Mr Hogarth were about to call a penalty. In the confusion, Joe Rand sped goalwards with the puck and forced Fone into a save.
Bakrlik and Reynolds chased after the puck into the corner by Skinns but the Phoenix forward was adjudged to have tripped Reynolds sending the Herd to the powerplay. The Bison fans were out of their seat after a great passing move set up Chinn for a chance in the slot but the shot that some thought was in was actually wide.
The Phoenix had a chance on the powerplay shortly afterwards when Ciaran Long was sent to the box for boarding former Bison, Jacob Corson-Heron. Long skated off to chants of “Manchester reject” from some Phoenix fans and those shouts turned to cheers as the Phoenix took the lead. As with so many things for Manchester this season, it came through Michal Psurny and Tony Hand who worked the puck to the front of the net. Hand’s shot rebounded off of Skinns and sat neatly for Robin Kovar to tap into the net at 28:47.
The Phoenix faithful roared their approval but were soon reduced to stunned silence when Ciaran Long came back to haunt them almost immediately. Under a bit of pressure from Tomas Karpov, Andy McKinney fell over on the puck at his own blueline. Long pounced on the loose puck, made a move and slotted the puck past Fone to tie the score at 29:13.
The Bison were soon facing another penalty killing situation when Miroslav Vantroba was rightly called for holding. There was soon controversy however as a high hit to Doug Sheppard saw the Bison player/coach down on the ice. The officials discussed what they had or hadn’t seen and no penalty was called on the play much to the distaste of the Bison players and fans.
Play restarted but the Phoenix powerplay unit couldn’t keep the puck inside the zone and suddenly, Joe Rand was away. As the Canadian sped towards Fone, he was dragged down from behind by Kovar and Mr Thompson raised his arms above his head to signal for a penalty shot.
After what seemed like an eternity, Rand was given the signal to go and he took off from centre ice. Heading out towards Fone’s left then cutting back in, Rand kept his speed, took a moment then fired past the netminder into the back of the net at 31:36. It had taken the Bison just under 3 minutes to go from behind to taking the lead.
The Herd smelled blood and pressed for another and nearly had their third when Aaron Connolly walked out of the corner and forced Fone into a spectacular save.
The Phoenix were given another powerplay when Reynolds was called for boarding Hand; an unlucky call as Hand turned his back on the hit at the last moment and the hit looked much worse than it actually was.
Rand had another shorthanded chance and the Phoenix pressed hard but they were caught as Reynolds stepped out of the box and was free on goal. The all star defenceman was in on Fone but was denied by a huge double pad stack save to keep the score at 2-1.
The Bison were still having the better chances as Joe Baird and Joe Greener both went close but the second period ended with the Herd still holding the lead.
The third period didn’t start well as the Bison managed to get caught for an icing infraction and have too many men on the ice all at once. The officials chose the icing infraction and it instantly proved costly. A repeat of Manchester’s first goal with different players saw James Archer on hand to tap the rebound past Skinns at 42:30 to level the scores.
The Bison wrestled control of the game back and pressed to regain the lead. Luke Boothroyd stopped a shot with his leg and then the Bison went even closer. Doug Sheppard found Andy Melachrino at the side of the net who shot. Fone made a save but the puck squirted free and was tapped in by Sheppard. One problem; Mr Hogarth had lost sight of the puck and blew his whistle before Sheppard put the puck over the line.
Rather than get too frustrated, the Bison set back to the task and it paid off. With the Bison having got the cycle going, the puck was worked back to Joe Baird who drove the puck goalwards and a deflection off of a Phoenix player took the puck past Fone to nestle in the bottom of the net at 47:53.
The Phoenix tried to hit back and the game was still massively open even at this late stage; Joe Graham having a huge drive that was saved by Skinns. Doug Sheppard put a pass to Tomas Karpov in space who hit the blueline, wound up and fired a bomb that rocketed past Fone at 50:01 to make it 4-2 to the Bison and the Herd fans were beside themselves.
When first Corson-Heron and then Joe Graham went to the box for slashing and delay of the game respectively, Bison fans were hoping for the final nail in the coffin but the Phoenix penalty killers did an excellent job in not allowing the Bison powerplay to get a foothold.
The Phoenix found themselves on a powerplay when Aaron Connolly pushed the net off in a scramble in front of Dean Skinns and was punished with a delay of game penalty. The powerplay produced no results to begin with and Manchester took their timeout to organise a plan of attack which eventually worked. Some neat movement of the puck from Schnabel to McKinney found Kovar alone in the slot to fire past Skinns at 56:49 to make it 3-4.
It became do or die for the Phoenix as they pressed forward and the Bison tried to weather the attack. Chance after chance came but the Herd were holding firm as time ebbed away.
The clock ticked on; 50 seconds and Fone headed to the bench for the extra attacker and there was nothing but pressure on the Bison net. A shot came in and Skinns held on with 16 seconds to play.
The faceoff came and the puck ended up round the boards and the Phoenix man on the blueline couldn’t stop Aaron Connolly taking it out of the zone. The Bison’s alternate captain advanced up the right wing with most of the Skydome willing him to find the empty net. Connolly was taking no chances and took the zone, dragged it around the sprawling defender before firing the puck into the goal at 59:58 and letting out a guttural roar along with the fans in attendance.
The players flooded off the bench and mobbed Dean Skinns to the roar of approval from the travelling Herd fans at the Skydome as the team that many said were destined to struggle had ignored their supposed destiny and instead had written history. The Basingstoke Bison had won the EPIHL playoff championship. They had done the double and had ended the 25th anniversary season in the grandest of styles.
Job done: The playoffs are a sprint rather than the marathon that is the regular season but they are an important sprint. It’s a matter of coming good at the right time. That being said the Bison ultimately played their game in the playoffs. There was no special game plan, it was their game versus our game and on the day, our game won. They shuffled the lines about a bit but ultimately this was no different from what has become “Bison hockey” under Doug Sheppard; speed, skill and physicality in equal measure and shutting teams down.
Tomas Karpov said in his interview with Bison Bites (now available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio, stick the cheque in the post please, Graham) that the man of the match means nothing in a moment like this and that’s fair enough but Karpov’s performance was excellent on the night. Then again, so was everyone’s performance. It’s hard to really pick someone out of that group of players. The entire defence were superb, Dean Skinns in net was on fine form again, the line of Chinn, Connolly and Rand were hitting anything that moved.
What was really impressive was the mental toughness of the Bison. They went a goal behind, didn’t wobble and in fact fought back to get a lead that they never lost. When that 3rd Phoenix goal went in, it could have been panic stations but the composure remained right up until Aaron Connolly started celebrating to the point he looked like he was going to smash his stick in half by slapping it on the ice because it was that happy.
Where the cup final second leg was parts determination and holding on, this game was a knock down drag out war but it was a war that the Bison won. They should be rightly proud, they were outstanding.
A word on our opponents: There are two sides to every story of course and the Manchester Phoenix more than played their part on this occasion. The league champions had not been given the easiest of rides by Swindon the day before, arguably even being outplayed for stretches, the Phoenix needed to bring their A-game and did look strong. The Phoenix tried to play their brand of expansive hockey, to up the tempo and keep the Bison on the back foot. They knew the momentum of the game would go back and forth and looked to set themselves up to weather the storm and then hit back. The issue for the Phoenix was they did look tired at points, there were moments where the rough ride from Saturday was telling but never to a point you could write Manchester off. You can never write Manchester off. At 2-2, the game was very much in the balance but when Joe Baird scored the 3rd and a quickly followed 4th, the Phoenix had a bit too much of a job on their hands.
Luke Boothroyd was a fair choice for man of the match. The EPL player of the year was on form and made some fantastic defensive plays alongside the now retiring Robert Schnabel (all the best, Rob). For me, Robin Kovar looked like a man who was trying very hard with minimal reward on Saturday so he was due a goal over the course of the weekend. Otherwise, much like the Bison, this was a team performance by the Phoenix. They went into battle, put their bodies on the line for each other and unfortunately for them and their dedicated fanbase, came up short this time. However when you lose in the final game of the season which means you lose out on a trophy and the fans react by singing “we are proud of you”, your organisation is doing something right, on and off the ice. All the best for the summer Phoenix fans.
Lowlight of the night: None, none whatsoever
Highlight of the night: I thought you’d never ask…