Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 20/9/14

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 3-2 Manchester Phoenix

Long pp                      Kovar

Greener pp                  Psurny

Melachrino pp

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Clip those wings: The Bison headed into the game still without Michael Wales whose recovery from his ankle injury continues. The Phoenix only scratched Declan Ryan with Steve Fone the only Phoenix netminder to travel.

Fans had gotten used to games between the two sides bringing excitement and this one started off with a bang as the visitors took an early lead. It seemed to come out of nowhere; Robin Kovar took the pass from Shaun Thompson across the blueline, made a move and just rocketed the puck past the glove of Dean Skinns. With only 21 seconds on the clock, there were some nervous looking faces in the home crowd.

The Bison went for an immediate response, Andy Melachrino’s shot being swallowed up by Stephen Fone and the Phoenix quickly found themselves on the powerplay after Declan Balmer was rightly called for hooking. The Phoenix powerplay unit at full strength got good puck movement but the Bison penalty kill units did an admirable job.

The Herd got to the end of the Balmer penalty without an addition to the score and soon were given their own opportunity to strike. With the puck on the boards at the blueline in front of the Bison bench, the players clamoured to try and take advantage but in the scuffle, Frankie Bakrlik was called for hooking sending the Bison to the powerplay.

The Herd’s man advantage didn’t start well as a poor turnover gave Michal Psurny a free shot at goal but Dean Skinns’ saved the host’s blushes with a flash of the glove.

The Bison’s powerplay just didn’t seem to be clicking in the early going but a fortuitous bounce brought the Herd back onto level terms. With the puck in the Phoenix zone, Bison won the puck back. Joe Greener fed Ciaran Long and with Fone being screened by his own defenceman the former Phoenix man found the back of the net at 06:05.

The Bison were soon back onto the powerplay when Shaun Thompson’s hit on Miroslav Vantroba was called as boarding but there was no joy to be had as Fone in the Manchester net was keeping a variety of shots at bay; the best coming when Greener fed Sheppard from behind the net but the Bison player/coach’s shot was stopped in spectacular style.

The game was beginning to take on the usual style of Bison vs Phoenix encounters with end to end action and chances through the middle section of the period. The Phoenix were the next ones to get the big opportunity when Vantroba was called for slashing but again the Bison penalty kill held firm. Robin Kovar was knocked to the ice by a massive hit by Kurt Reynolds, the Czech forward incensed with the lack of call from Mr Thompson feeling he was elbowed but the referee was unsympathetic to Kovar’s protestations.

The Bison had a powerplay chance soon afterwards, Luke Boothroyd sent to the box for slashing on Tomas Karpov when he’d been beaten for pace but this time the Phoenix’s penalty killing was of a high quality and with Fone standing on his head, the Bison could still not find a second way through the EPL all star netminder.

Joe Greener had the last good chance of the period when he got the step on James Neil and made a customary charge on net but the Phoenix backstop stood strong and the first period ended 1-1 which on the balance of play was a fair score.

The second period started at a pace even more blistering than the first. The Bison had the first real chance when Joe Graham slipped which gave Aaron Connolly a run at Fone but the Bison man fired high of the net.

The Bison were the team creating the better chances but just couldn’t seem to find that final touch. Doug Sheppard had a shot saved and a centring feed rebounded off of Joe Greener over the crossbar. The pressure around Fone mounted and as everyone battled for the puck, Luke Boothroyd was called for holding and the Bison had another powerplay chance.

The Bison were getting good puck movement but at times it seemed like Fone would be the unsolvable puzzle, he was seeing everything from all angles. The Bison moved the puck and teed up Vantroba for the blast but it was easily handled by Fone. It would need a little something special to crack the Phoenix netminder. With the puck behind the net Melachrino fed Joe Greener who found the smallest of gaps that only he could see from and the puck squeezed through and over the line at 24:10 to give the Bison a 2-1 lead.

The Phoenix had a chance to get back on level terms moments later. Ben Wood levelled Aaron Connolly with a big hit. The Bison man was fine and got straight back up but exuberance to get back into the fray saw him called for slashing.

In amongst all the excitement of the game and the back and forth, Robin Kovar was still an unhappy man. Still feeling aggrieved at Reynolds having not been called for elbows on the hit in the first period Kovar was still chatting with Mr Thompson who, in the middle of the Phoenix powerplay, stopped play to give Kovar a misconduct penalty. The Phoenix forward was only further incensed and made his feelings known to Mr Thompson who subsequently gave Kovar a game misconduct and the Phoenix goalscorer’s night was done after 25 minutes.

The Bison kept the pressure on; a two on one opportunity was broken up superbly by Luke Boothroyd. Nicky Chinn got an inch of space and his shot rebounded off of Chinn but Connolly couldn’t get his stick on the puck to tap home.

Shortly afterwards the Bison had the puck in the net and the home crowd rose to their feet in celebration. Some good work from Andy Melachrino found Tomas Karpov who slotted home but the joy was short lived as Mr Thompson emphatically waved the goal off, deciding the puck had been played with a high stick to the fury of the home crowd.

The speed at which the game was being played was leaving the crowd as out of breath as the players. Psurny got round his man but his effort was saved by Skinns, Bakrlik did some great forechecking and fed the man pinching in but that too couldn’t beat the Bison goaltender. Tomas Karpov went for one of his winding runs but Fone was again equal to his efforts.

Then out of nowhere, Johan Burlin was down on the ice. It appeared he was hurt and was helped off the ice before he visibly hobbled to the room but reports range from a recurrence of an ankle injury to a broken skate blade. Either way, the Swedish defenceman who had been a rock at the back during the game was off the ice and would not return. The Phoenix were now down to two imports.

The second raced to its end; Adam Walker had a big drive stopped by Skinns and the Bison engineered another 10 man scramble for the puck in front of Fone but when the hooter sounded it was the Bison still leading 2-1 on the scoreboard.

The final period didn’t start well for the Bison when Joe Baird took a tumble and was down on the ice quite obviously hurt. Baird was up and off under his own power as play continued favouring his arm. He did return to the game eventually but it was a worrying moment.

The Bison had a couple of good chances through Ciaran Long and Tomas Karpov before Kurt Reynolds was called for cross checking as he attempted to dispossess Jacob Corson-Heron. For all the frustrations the Bison were having with Fone, the Phoenix suffered likewise as well with Skinns who denied them on the ensuing powerplay.

The game had lost some of its pace, both sides having seemingly gone through the second at such a rate that the tanks were both close to being empty. This didn’t stop the chances coming however. James Neil’s stickcheck denied Tomas Karpov, James Archer and Ben Wood were denied by Skinns.

The game was very tightly poised and despite being 2 imports down, the Phoenix were still threatening against a Bison team that appeared to be running out of steam.

The Phoenix didn’t help their cause when Frankie Bakrlik was called for slashing and the Bison made the Phoenix pay. Some neat passing saw the puck go quickly from Greener to Karpov who fed Andy Melachrino in front of Fone. Melachrino took a touch then slotted the puck home at 52:25 for a 3-1 Bison lead.

Then in a minute the Phoenix had their second. Manchester pressed right off of the faceoff after Melachrino’s goal. The visitors cycled the puck and James Neil’s shot from the blueline popped off of the pad of Dean Skinns to an unmarked Michal Psurny who only had to tap home at 53:26 to bring the league champions within a goal.

A game that had little of the rough stuff of last week’s encounter saw a few pushes and shoves; with Rand having been called for charging, Balmer and Bakrlik took a shot at each other. The offsetting crosschecking penalties were pretty much the extent of the game’s extracurriculars.

The Phoenix were still causing the Bison a number of problems and took their timeout to consider their options. Despite being on the back foot, the Bison weren’t going quietly as evidenced when Tomas Karpov hammered Joe Graham into the boards to the surprise of the Phoenix defenceman and most of the crowd.

Then, a scary moment. Frankie Bakrlik had arguably been the Phoenix’s best player all night and wanted to try and find the equaliser for his team. He charged down the central channel but was greeted by Miroslav Vantroba. The Bison’s Slovak defenceman stuck out the hip and Bakrlik was sent cartwheeling over Vantroba’s back before landing in a heap on the floor, clipping Joe Rand as he went by. Bakrlik remained motionless for a few moments before being helped off the ice to a loud round of applause, the crowd happy that the injury wasn’t more serious.

Understandably the game went a bit flat after that. The Phoenix looked for an answer but when Joe Graham was called for kneeing as he tried to impede Andy Melachrino’s progress with 30 seconds to go, there was no chance to pull Fone. Time ticked down and the Bison’s unbeaten start to 2014/15 continued.

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

All the right reasons: After all the hullabaloo surrounding last week’s game, it was good for all concerned that this game was played as the majority of Bison/Phoenix encounters are; high tempo, high intensity, high quality hockey games. There’s always a physical undercurrent but it never boils over.

Joe Greener got the man of the match award which was acceptable to myself and many in attendance. The player/assistant coach was virtually unstoppable at moments against Peterborough and was on fire again tonight. He was a constant, focussed threat and there was a feeling that he would score at some stage during proceedings as the line of Joe, Doug Sheppard and Ciaran Long continues to cause havoc for the opposition. The rewarding of Joe with the beers is arguably just reward given he would almost certainly of gotten them the week before had they not been cancelled for obvious reasons. Greener now stands at 4 goals and 3 assists in 2 games. Whilst he is unlikely to maintain a 3.5 points per game average across the season, the Bison need to make the most of this rich vein of form.

Kurt Reynolds again was an utter rock at the back and again seemed to be able to turn his way out of everything and anything. The whole defence (bar Brendan Baird who I didn’t see ice) were an impressive unit. It was a much more composed performance from Matt Selby as the usual high pressing that the Bison employ was scaled back a bit given the pace of the Manchester attack. Declan Balmer is going to be a player that we only notice when he’s either scoring or making a mistake so his quiet game was a job well done. Miroslav Vantroba’s hip check on Bakrlik had an unfortunate outcome but was textbook. The status of Joe Baird’s arm is unknown.

Dean Skinns had a decent game in net though will be displeased with the first goal given it went it past his glove so early. He recovered well and looked very solid, especially at the end with his teammates running on fumes.

The Bison probably shaded the game on balance of performance, the second period being what some people called the most exciting they’d seen the Bison play at home for some time. The pace was off the chain (obviously helped by a very fluid Phoenix side) but the Bison dominated the middle period and at times looked frightening. If any team gives the Herd a chance to play like that, they will be in trouble. The quality of the special teams play has to be pleasing to Doug Sheppard as well; 3 powerplay goals against the league champions and the win is a mark of a side in full flow. To be doing so this early is an encouraging sign.

A word on our opponents: Phoenix fans will instantly worry about the injuries to Johan Burlin and Frankie Bakrlik after last night. If Burlin’s is just a broken skate blade that couldn’t be replaced then that’s less of an issue. The big Swede looked very good though it’s obviously hard to make a full judgement given he didn’t play for a massive chunk of the game but he looks decent. He’s certainly a different player from Robert Schnabel but if he settles fully will surely be an asset.

I’ve bemoaned Frankie Bakrlik on this blog on occasion but he was superb for the Phoenix last night up until his point of injury. Always looking to make something happen, Bakrlik never looked like he was going to be the man to score but rather set up the eventual play. His size and skill make him a handful but the way his game ended will obviously make people nervous about his status tonight against Sheffield.

Stephen Fone got the man of the match beers and that was understandable. 41 saves, 21 of them in the second period alone kept Manchester in the contest when arguably they could have been well out of it by the second buzzer. He seemed to be seeing the puck from all angles and was beaten when his defence was stretched and had minimal chance to do anything. It’s good for the Phoenix he did so, the absence of Declan Ryan meant that Fone had no choice but he certainly stood on his head.

Despite the loss Phoenix fans should take heart from this performance. Imports down, on the back foot for chunks of the game, the league champions were resolute in not going quietly into the night. When the Bison were looking tired in the last ten minutes was arguably the chance for the Phoenix to strike and level the scores but they just seemed to lack something. Whether it was the extra players or just that spark that maybe Kovar could have provided had he not decided arguing with the referee was a better idea than playing, we’ll never know.

Two weekends into the season and only 3 points from 6 might wobble some of the Phoenix faithful but it’s too soon for such things. This is a roster still bedding in. Their time will come, I’m disconcertingly sure of such things.

Lowlight of the night: The injury to Bakrlik; never nice to see.

Highlight of the night: The goals were all lovely but I’m going to say a tie between Kurt Reynolds in general and Karpov’s hit on Graham. Where’s he been hiding that?

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