Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 18/10/14

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 4-3 Manchester Phoenix

Karpov                         Thompson dpg

Long x 2                       Kovar

Sheppard                     Burlin

Back to where we started from: The Bison welcomed Ciaran Long back from injury and Aaron Connolly back from suspension but were without Matt Selby who was suffering from the effects of his clash with Chris Wiggins in last Sunday’s disappointing loss to Bracknell which saw Michael Wales play shifts on defence. The Phoenix were without James Archer and Jacob Corson-Heron and added Jared Dickinson. It was an all star battle in the nets as Dean Skinns took on Stephen Fone.

Games between the Bison and the Phoenix are traditionally open affairs played at speed but there was an early incident saw an unusual moment of confrontation; Michal Psurny took the stretch pass but was offside and the whistle blew. Psurny fired a slapshot at Skinns which instantly drew the ire of Declan Balmer and others. There were some shoves and cross words but no penalties from Mr Thompson.

Once that was out of the way, the game settled into the usual Basingstoke vs Manchester mode of both teams playing fast paced exciting hockey that yielded chances at both ends. Robin Kovar got the step on Declan Balmer but was denied by Skinns and Grant Rounding won the battle on the boards but his short side shot couldn’t find his way past Fone.

Then a moment of controversy; Mr Thompson’s arm rose on the delayed penalty for Joe Baird slashing his man. As Manchester had the puck, play continued and the visitors pressed towards the Bison net when the whistle blew. Then the puck ended up in the net as Shaun Thompson bundled the puck past Skinns and Mr Thompson signalled for the goal. The home players and fans were irate but the official held firm and the goal counted at 06:12.

The Bison channelled their efforts into trying to respond and came close in a scramble but Nicky Chinn couldn’t find a way to fire through the crowd. Kovar made a lovely move around Wales when he jumped into the play and was clear in on Skinns but the Bison backstop stood his ground.

The return of Aaron Connolly to the lineup added an extra element of pace to the Bison’s game. When the Herd’s alternate captain was set free up the middle, he was denied by Fone but was slashed on his way through by Jack Watkins which gave the hosts a powerplay. It took the Bison just 5 seconds to score as the faceoff went to Melachrino to Long to Karpov and the Czech star fired past Fone at 11:43 to tie the scores.

Aaron Connolly was given another chance to rush at Fone but was denied once again. Frankie Bakrlik stepped into Kurt Reynolds to stop the Bison defenceman gaining the zone. It looked to be interference but as no call came the Phoenix continued to attack and Bakrlik was on the end of the move but couldn’t beat Skinns.

The Phoenix’s import forward soon found himself in the box for slashing moments later but the Herd couldn’t utilise the man advantage; the best chance falling to Andy Melachrino when some slick passing made it’s way to the front of the net but Melachrino lost the handle and the puck scuffed off of his stick and away. The Phoenix had a 2on1 chance shorthanded but were denied by some excellent play by Kurt Reynolds.

The period was finely balanced seeing big hits flying from Wood and Vantroba and good saves from Fone and Skinns as they denied Michael Wales and Ben Wood’s tip shot respectively.

The Bison had the last chance of the period, a shot from Joe Baird tipped by Joe Rand but Fone made the save. The first period ended 1-1 which was a fair reflection on the balance of play.

The second period started off in much the same way as the first had ended with both teams having their chances but it was the Phoenix that struck first. With the visitors pressuring the Bison net, Skinns was drawn out of position and Bakrlik fed Kovar to fire into the open cage at 23:48.

It didn’t take long for the Bison to respond. The Herd pressured in the zone but the puck went astray off of a deflection from a Phoenix stick. The puck stopped at the feet of Ciaran Long who gathered himself, turned, saw the gap over Fone’s shoulder and fired. The puck went past Fone and hit the corner of crossbar and post before hitting the back of the net at 24:32 to make the score 2-2.

Manchester came back into the game in an attempt to get the lead back, the best chance falling to Ben Wood as the puck fell to him in front of the net but he could only get the puck to trickle wide of the post.

The Bison were sent back to the powerplay when Jack Watkins got the knee out on Stuart Mogg just before the half way point of the game however Stephen Fone was in top form making two saves in quick succession including one from an unmarked Andy Melachrino just metres in front of the Phoenix net.

The Bison were having more of the shots and the chances but Ciaran Long spurned a huge chance when he took the feed at the top of the crease. Fone dropped down to make the save and Long tried to lift the puck over the sprawling netminder but lifted it so high he got the netting over the plexiglass.

Long would punish the Phoenix moments later; with the Bison cycling the puck Long took the puck on the halfboards, looked up and seeing another gap that only he could see, hammered the puck goalwards and it found the gap to give the Bison the lead at 34:44.

The Bison kept coming as they tried to extend their lead forcing Fone into a string of quick saves but couldn’t add to their total and the Phoenix pressed as the period came to a close. Adam Walker got into a with Joe Baird but his shot could only find the side netting. Frankie Bakrlik’s hard work created a chance as he went around the back of the net but his centring feed went through the crease and out the other side as there was nobody there to connect so the period ended with the Bison still 3-2 ahead.

Manchester headed into the third period determined to bring the scores level and got their wish less than 90 seconds into the frame. With the Bison starting the period a bit flat, the Phoenix got the cycle going, fed the puck up to Johan Burlin whose drive along the ice found its way through the screen and past Skinns at 41:24 to tie the game at 3-3.

However again the Bison found their way back, this time taking around 80 seconds to wrestle the lead back. Some good work by Aaron Connolly and Ciaran Long drew Fone out of position, the feed came to Sheppard who span on a sixpence and blasted into the net at 42:46 for a 4-3 Bison lead.

The pace of the game in the final period was still impressive given how the teams had been in the preceding 43 minutes and of course it led to chances; Burlin was fed for another blast from the point but this time Skinns was equal to the task and Aaron Connolly and Michael Wales both had chances that Fone was equal to. Michal Psurny even tried shooting from almost the exact point where Long had scored his second goal but there was no gap for him to score this time.

Time was running out for the Phoenix and they started cranking up the pressure as Psurny and Burlin both had chances. The Bison reverted to their normal game plan in such situations as they sat back and hit on the counter, Joe Rand coming close but ultimately denied by Fone.

Whilst the game had been high quality, the conditions had not been ideal. Temperature issues had caused lots of condensation on the boards causing issues for fans trying to see on occasions and also a mist kept descending on the game which, whilst it added a mild gothic feel to proceedings was making it hard to see parts of the rink at times and it worked against the Phoenix. Joe Greener was called for highsticking Joe Graham with 5 minutes to go and the Phoenix were about to head to the powerplay when Mr Thompson decided the mist was so bad that the teams needed to skate around to clear the fog. Whilst entirely justified given it was getting tough to see what was going on, it killed the momentum the Phoenix had going into the powerplay. This was somewhat demonstrated moments later when as the Phoenix moved the puck well, Kovar shot into the midriff of Skinns missing his team mate Bakrlik unmarked at the backdoor.

Time ticked on and the Phoenix still couldn’t find a way through. With 2:05 to play, Tony Hand called the timeout to try and plan what to do but the Bison had their plan as well. The Herd came out and played the high forecheck which pinned the Phoenix back giving them no chance to pull Fone for the extra attacker. The Bison put the pressure on and held on as the buzzer went signalling a return to the win column.

For the Long-est time: Another high paced, high quality, low PIMs affair between the Bison and the Phoenix was just what the doctor ordered especially for those present at the loss at The Hive the week before.

The return of Ciaran Long to the lineup was eagerly anticipated by Bison fans who felt that the Herd had been lacking a creative spark during his time out. Little did we know the impact he would instantly have. With Michael Wales taking shifts on defence, it meant the Greener, Long, Sheppard line wasn’t seen but the lines were shuffled all night and it didn’t seem to matter who Long was with to cause havoc with the Phoenix defence. Both goals were superb individual efforts for different reasons but both superb examples of the vision that Ciaran has.

The Bison also benefited from the return of Aaron Connolly from suspension as his speed up the middle caused a manner of issues. You can see the frustration brewing for Connolly as he seems desperate to score at home but can’t seem to find the final touch. You have to think it’s coming but his energy is a vital asset to the Bison and they able to play at a higher tempo as a result.

The one player who deserves a lot of plaudits though for last night was Miroslav Vantroba. The Slovak is always a solid player whose high level of consistency always gets overshadowed in some respects by the fact that Kurt Reynolds is that good and that bit more visable but this for me was arguably Vantroba’s best game in a Bison jersey. With no Selby, players stepped into the hole he left in terms of physicality and minutes and Vantroba was a machine; making big hits, blocking shots, even making the odd uncharacteristic surging run into the offensive zone which made me think Mikko Purontakanen had returned. Declan Balmer deserves credit as well for what was also probably his best game in Bison colours, a fitting way to celebrate his GB u20 call up. Dean Skinns had another night where he made a couple of top quality saves when the defence weren’t rubbing out the play themselves including a couple of saves that prove his status as top quality in this league.

The overall performance will have pleased Doug Sheppard I think. It was an industrious team win over a fellow title challenger where the team only gave away 1 actual powerplay, came from behind twice and won.

A word on our opponents: Whilst the scoreline had a similar look, this was a very different game for Manchester than their last visit to Hampshire. For one thing they finished with all their imports and didn’t look utterly lost in the second period. What will trouble Tony Hand was again, in the death, Manchester didn’t really threaten.

Across the 60 minutes it was a good performance. The Phoenix’s passing game was outstanding and their ability to stretch the play is second to none in this league which players able to play the long outlet pass that instantly has teams scrambling.

Whilst Robin Kovar was decent enough I don’t think I would have given him the beers. A short bench meant Ben Wood played as a forward but was probably the hardest worker on the Phoenix roster all night. He played high energy, finished his hits and even had a couple of good scoring chances though was kept off of the scoresheet.

The other player worthy of the beers was Stephen Fone. Whilst there was nothing he could do about a couple of the goals, Fone made a variety of saves including at least two or three when it seemed that Bison players were certain to score from the top of the crease. It was probably the best I’ve seen Fone play in Basingstoke. However the Phoenix netminder wouldn’t have been called into so much action had his defence given him better cover.

The Phoenix were short benched and this obviously takes a toll but having taken the timeout with just over 2 minutes to play and then not getting a shot on target and getting pushed back to the point where Fone couldn’t be pulled is not a situation that Manchester want to be in. This is the second of 3 planned visits for the Phoenix to Basingstoke and I have express my first slither of doubt about the Phoenix; if they can’t find a way to come through tight games like this then the title won’t stay in Altrincham.

Lowlight of the night: Phoenix’s 3rd goal, utterly avoidable

Highlight of the night: Long’s first goal which was an utter peach of a shot that Fone had no chance with.

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