Banners On The Road – Wightlink Raiders vs Chelmsford Chieftains 19/4/14

NIHL South 1 Playoff Final 1st Leg

Wightlink Raiders 3-3 Chelmsford Chieftains

Barker x 2 (1pp)         Brittle (5on3 pp)

Vizzari                      Connolly

                                Turner (pp)

The game: The hosts went into the game with Matt Colclough between the pipes facing off against Euan King for the league and cup champion Chieftains.

The game started out nice and open, both teams getting chances in what was an initial feeling out process for both sides. The Chieftains tested Matt Colclough and a well worked move by the Raiders forced a save from King from a shot at the top of his crease.

Corey Watkins was making it his role to mark and agitate the ever dangerous Luke Brittle and he was rewarded when he drew a slashing call, sending Brittle to the box for an early chance. The hosts piled on the pressure, the best chance coming when Jeremy Cornish fired a no look pass from beside the goalpost to Steve Osman in the slot but King made a good save.

Where Watkins was sticking to Brittle, Nathan Taylor was doing a similar job on Gary Clarke but it was the Wightlink man who fell foul of the referee Mr Solovjovs when he was called for interference. It was made worse shortly afterwards when Cornish was called for roughing after a gloved punch to Chelmsford’s big import defenceman, Tibor Schneider giving the visitors a 5 on 3 powerplay and despite some excellent stops by Colclough, eventually the pressure told. A broken play saw Clarke feed Luke Brittle who needed two attempts but eventually beat Colclough from the angle at 09:30.

The Chieftains were firmly on the front foot at this stage and were quickly back to the front of the net. The puck was past Colclough but the goal was called off for reasons that remained unknown to many, the announcement being made right as the crowd was making noise. It didn’t matter shortly afterwards as the visitors got their second goal. Danial Volrab fed John Connolly at the side of the net and he beat Colclough shortside at 11:59 to double the advantage.

The Raiders looked rattled and needed something to spark them into life and were given an opportunity when John Connolly was rightly called for interference sending the Raiders to the powerplay. It didn’t take the hosts long to strike, the puck was cycled round to the point where NIHL South 1 all star Alex Barker hammered the puck past King at 13:50 to put the Isle of Wight on the board.

The Raiders went straight back to the front of the net in an attempt to get the puck past King but the only connection was between Jeremy Cornish’s stick and the mask of the Chelmsford backstop.

The end of the period saw the sides trade penalties; Julian Smith was called for holding before Damon Larter was forced into hooking back Gary Clarke on the shorthanded breakway.

The period ended in a bad tempered fashion when Yousif Abu Saada landed a monstrous hit on a Chelmsford player that was called as a check to the head with Darren Brown picking up a roughing penalty for his part in the afters. The Chieftains took advantage on the powerplay as Matthew Turner struck on the powerplay at 19:42 to make it 3-1 to the visitors at the first buzzer.

The hosts had looked a touch sluggish in the first period and needed to find a way to get themselves back into the contest. The Raiders were the fastest out of the gate for the second period and got a good bounce that gave them what they wanted. A shot from Corey Watkins rebounded off of King onto the stick of Matt Vizzari. The Canadian import mishandled but got just enough on the puck to squeeze it between King and the post at 24:11.

The Chieftains were back to the powerplay when Craig Tribe checked his former Bison teammate Daniel Volrab into the Raiders net and it looked to be 4-2 shortly afterwards as a long drive went past Colclough into the net but all the celebrations were called off when one of the linesmen signalled that the play was offside and was treated to a Tibor Schneider death stare.

The game became a battle of attrition; the quality of the play dropping and the contest became a battle of wills and grit as the teams put the expansive hockey away to try muscle and claw their way past each other. The Chieftains hit posts, the Raiders had a good chance in the slot that was missed by Corey Watkins but nothing was doing in either direction.

The Raiders had a late powerplay chance when Michael Ranby was called for roughing. The home side threw the kitchen sink at the Chieftains goal in an attempt to get an equaliser before the buzzer but were stopped by some excellent penalty killing and fantastic netminding by Euan King who seemed determined to frustrate the vocal home support.

The final period of the season at the Ryde Arena got underway in much a similar way to the first period; both sides seemingly scared of making a mistake and the feeling out process began again. Who was feeling the fatigue? Where were the holes in the armour? Who wanted it more?

Nathan Taylor tangled with John Connolly which saw the Chelmsford man pulled to the floor and his head bounce off the ice which leads us to a BOTW public service announcement; if a player is down on the ice, clearly shaken up and getting checked out by the physio, don’t boo him. Connolly was fine and back to action moments later but never boo a man down on the ice. Rant over.

Oddly after the break to check on Connolly, the game started to really open up a bit. The game became a real end to end affair with some really good hockey taking place on the notoriously small Ryde ice surface.

Matthew Turner was called for interference before Matthew Vizzari fell foul of Mr Solovjovs for a charging call that was incredibly harsh given the Canadian had not taken more than 2 steps from the goalpost to the end boards.

The game felt like it had a goal left in it and the Raiders made sure that they were the ones to get it. After a period of sustained pressure on King’s goal, the equaliser came. Some neat passing found Alex Barker in the slot who fired a slapshot through the 5 hole of King to tie the scores at 58:25.

The Raiders decided they wanted a winner before the final buzzer and kept pressing. In the final few seconds, Barker was set away and it was a straight foot race between King and the Raiders’ all star forward. Brittle tripped Barker and King won the race to the puck. The ref had his arm raised for the call on Brittle but the final act was the buzzer ending what had been an entertaining contest at 3-3 ahead of the second leg on Chelmsford.

The Raiders: It really was a game of three periods for the hosts; the first was uninspired, the second was gritty and determined and the third was like the Raiders of old full of determination and direction. Finding themselves 3-1 down at the end of the 1st period, the Raiders refocussed and clawed their way back into a tie when if they’d continued playing how they had been, they could have found themselves blown out of the water.

Simon Hobbis was a good choice for man of the match, the GB under 18 international playing a calm and composed game from the back that belied his years. He joined the rush when needed, made smart plays and looked like a higher level of hockey calls him.

That said, Alex Barker was outstanding last night. The former Slough man was the Raiders most potent attacking threat all night and surely has to be high on the list of wanted returnees by management.

Some of the bigger Raiders names were rather quiet during the game; Matt Vizzari and Steve Osman didn’t have the impact that many might have hoped they had but this was countered by some superb role play by Corey Watkins and Nathan Taylor whose man marking of Brittle and Clarke sometimes crossed the line into “handy stickwork” but was effective. They are the sort of gritty players built for “old time” playoff hockey.

The key to the Raiders getting a result in Chelmsford? Go out in the first period and hit anything that moves wearing a Chelmsford shirt. The Raiders need to get the Chieftains off of their game. The tie turned in Wightlink’s favour on this night when the game turned into a more gritty affair. The Raiders are not the most skillful team so they have 1 option; out work them.

The Chieftains: Cardiff NIHL Devils/Satans goalie/bench coach/waterboy Dan Brabon told me on the run up to the game that Chelmsford would impress and that they did. Watching the Chieftains, it’s easy to see why they are on the verge of a grand slam. They are a very highly skilled side with a deep bench. The team is well rounded and has players to play all the necessary roles needed for success at any level.

Julian Smith got the man of the match beers but with all due respect to him, Euan King was robbed. The former Peterborough goalie who started the season with the London Raiders came into the game with a 0.95 save percentage in his 7 league games and pulled off a performance that totally supported those numbers. He had a decent defensive effort in front of him but some of the stops under pressure were simply outstanding. He will be disappointed with the Raiders’ third goal but overall it was a performance worthy of praise. It’s crazy to think he’s only 24.

As Gary Clarke skates off into the sunset after the second leg, he certainly seems to want to go out on a high and the Chieftains player/coach doesn’t look like a man who is hanging up the axe. The speed is still there, the hands are still there and the hockey brain is still very much there. He was a threat to the point the Raiders had him man marked every time he was on the ice and that didn’t always work. All the best in retirement, Gary.

It was a solid team performance by Chelmsford but they will be displeased at letting the lead slip. Whilst they are still very much the odds on favourites for the tie, essentially starting from 0-0 with one game to play at the Riverside, they can’t allow Wightlink a chance to do anything. If the Chieftains play their game and don’t allow the Raiders an inch, it’ll be another trophy heading to Essex.

Overall: The result was probably the correct one; 3-3 speaks to the decent performance of both sides. It wasn’t the prettiest game of hockey I’ve ever seen but it was entertaining. It was the two best sides in NIHL 1 South going at each other for the big prize and tonight they have 60 minutes to decide the winner. The game had a bit of everything; good plays, tough action, a good and vocal crowd and the requisite plate of cheesy curly fries.

I’m still utterly confused by the Vizzari charging call but it was a good evening and we await tonight’s second leg with anticipation.

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