Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 17/1/15

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 3-2 Manchester Phoenix

Sheppard                     Bakrlik x2 (1 pp)

Long

Greener

Fire safety: The Bison remained without Selby, Rounding and Brendan Baird which meant Michael Wales continued to deputise on defence. The Phoenix headed in minus talismanic captain Luke Boothroyd as well as Michal Psurny, Joe Graham and Declan Ryan thanks to injury or illness meaning Stephen Fone was the lone Phoenix netminder.

The Bison started the game with the much higher tempo than the Phoenix and were quickly rewarded; the Herd got in close to Stephen Fone who made the initial save but it was a Bison stick that would get to the puck in amongst the hacking and whacking and eventually Doug Sheppard would be credited with the final touch past Fone at 01:22.

The hosts kept the pressure on and kept trying to get the puck on net. Vantroba had a shot tipped by Melachrino that was saved by Fone and the Phoenix netminder made a good reaction stop from Joe Rand after Aaron Connolly had won the puck on the boards.

James Archer was called for tripping which put the Bison on the powerplay but the advantage only lasted about a minute before Nicky Chinn brought down Frankie Bakrlik which brought the teams to 4on4 and it was just the space that the Phoenix’s Czech forward needed. The visitors worked the puck around and the extra ice saw Barklik find the space at the blueline. Robin Kovar put the puck on a plate and Bakrlik blasted through traffic and over the shoulder of Skinns at 05:16 to tie the score.

However the Phoenix couldn’t turn that goal into a swing of momentum and despite a good chance from James Archer, the Bison were in firm control of the period making Stephen Fone work hard. The Phoenix netminder was forced into stops on Connolly, Long and Greener from a variety of angles and some wondered if it was going to be another night of the Bison bombarding the goal with minimal success but their tenacity in going to the net was again rewarded when they repeated the success of the first goal and Ciaran Long was able get the last touch at 14:27 to give the Herd back the lead.

The Phoenix appeared to be off the pace and couldn’t really contain the line of Greener, Long and Sheppard and they were punished again with the third, almost identical goal when again the Phoenix failed to clear the net in front of Fone and this time Joe Greener would be credited with the shot past Fone for 3-1 at 17:18.

Stuart Mogg also test Fone a couple of times but couldn’t extend the Bison’s lead. At the other end, Dean Skinns was called into action as he stopped Robin Kovar and Shaun Thompson in quick succession keeping the Herd’s 2 goal lead intact as the first period came to an end.

The second started in a similar vein from the first as the Bison had the best of the early pressure; Tomas Karpov going closest after his tip on a Sheppard shot went wide.

That said, the Phoenix appeared to have made good use of the break and clawed their way back into the contest and the chances became much more even in all directions. Bakrlik blasted the puck at Skinns and the Bison netminder held on long enough to get the whistle as the official lost sight of the puck despite it still being loose. At the other end, Fone was continuing his good performance as he denied Cameron Wynn. Even the forwards were getting in on the defensive game as some good passing between Karpov and Greener to set up Long was denied by a nifty sticklift by Jacob Corson-Heron.

The chances kept coming; Bakrlik fed the puck to the backdoor for Kovar who was stopped by Skinns going post to post and slick Bison passing to set up Karpov for the five hole shot but Fone shut the pads in time.

Despite Steve Fone having fallen over skating to the bench on the delayed call, a hooking call on Joe Greener sent the Phoenix to the powerplay but there was no way past Skinns; the Bison netminder making a good stop to his right as Kovar found Hand with a cross feed slap pass. The second yielded a much more even contest but the Herd retained their two goal lead. The Phoenix however would have to do without Adam Walker; the Scottish forward needing treatment on the bench for an apparent back injury in the break and he would take no further part in the contest.

The first acts of consequence of the third period were unusual. Tony Hand took a high stick to the face and went down. The referee Mr Brooks stopped play but there was no penalty call on the play. A few moments later, Mr Brooks head something he didn’t like from the Phoenix bench and gave a bench minor for abuse of official. It would come back to relevance later.

The Phoenix were having more chances and better ones in the third period with Shaun Thompson going close before they were given a powerplay as Reynolds was innocuously called for interference. Despite James Archer having his shot disappear into the shorts of Miroslav Vantroba, the breakthrough would come for the Phoenix from a familiar route as Kovar fed Bakrlik and he hammered home past Skinns from the blueline to cut the Bison’s lead to 3-2 at 48:10.

Then came the interesting bit; Robin Kovar hit Kurt Reynolds in the face and the Bison defenceman hit the ice. Again, there was no indication from the official of a penalty being called as Reynolds lay bleeding on the ice. The Bison man was up and off the ice quickly to get looked at and after consulting with one of his linesmen Mr Brooks informed Kovar that his night was done thanks to the match penalty for high sticks. The penalty was downgraded when Reynolds returned.

The Bison powerplay couldn’t find a way past a gargantuan effort from the Phoenix defence and a resolute Fone in net. Chances flew goalwards but the bounces just didn’t fall for the Herd. The Phoenix had a great shorthanded chance as Hand broke out and served up a great pass for Bobby Chamberlain but a top class save from Skinns denied him. This was followed up by shots from Vantroba and Baird being tipped onto the pipework but the 5 minute advantage yielded no goals.

The game started coming down to the wire and the Phoenix upped their intensity as the Bison appeared to tire slightly, the best chance coming when a Jack Watkins shot took a tip from Tony Hand but flew wide of Skinns’ left post.

Hand called the timeout at 58:33 to get a plan together but the Bison responded in kind by pressuring the Phoenix to the point that they didn’t get a chance to pull Fone early in the search for an equaliser. By the time the visitors got into the zone with about 25 seconds to go, for some reason Fone stayed in the net. As the puck was knocked into the corner and away from Skinns’ net it sealed the deal as the Bison’s recent run of good form continued.

Beat what comes: The usual adage about games between the Bison and the Phoenix being good ones continued in what ultimately was the correct result on the night. The Bison looked like they had the extra gear that the tired and short benched Phoenix didn’t appear to have and ultimately a dominant first period was enough to hold the visitors at bay.

Joe Greener was given the beers which was a reasonable choice though the entire line of Greener, Sheppard and Long was outstanding all night and Manchester didn’t really seem to have a solid way to deal with them. When Sheppard swapped himself off of that line for Karpov in the second period, I certainly had to raise an eyebrow at it. Karpov is obviously a good player but it seemed a strange thing to do when that combination was doing so well. When they came back together in the third, they were obviously tiring a bit but were still a really potent combination.

After the team’s wobble in December and his blows to the head against Guildford, last night was a performance from Dean Skinns that shows he might be coming back to his best. He was beaten by two very good shots but made a variety of good saves including a couple of post to post efforts as well as the outstanding shorthanded save on Bobby Chamberlain.

Skinns was aided by a solid defensive performance from the blueline corps. Miroslav Vantroba had a fantastic night and Kurt Reynolds, whack to the face and all, showed the vision he has going up ice. Reynolds seems to be able to look up and see breakout options where others can only see one.

The second powerplay unit didn’t click as well as it could have done, the occasional miscommunication between Andy Melachrino and Aaron Connolly making things not work quite as smoothly as they should but these newer combinations are still apparently bedding in.

I think we’re at the point now in January where having tallied 10 points of the last 12 on offer, perhaps Bison fans can conclude that the sky didn’t really fall in December as some appeared to make out.

A word on our opponents: Reflecting back on last night, if I were a Phoenix fan this would be a complex one to sit and dissect but there’s good and bad to be taken from this game.

The bad is yet another injury it appears, this time to Adam Walker on top of a mounting injury list that currently includes arguably their two best players in Luke Boothroyd and Michal Psurny. The other was given the absence of Psurny was the ineffectualness of two of their other 3 imports. Johan Burlin looked lost at times and despite a couple of assists, Robin Kovar didn’t offer much nor did the Phoenix really miss him after his ejection.

The good was the overall effort of the side. I disagree with the assertion that Jack Watkins made after the game on his Twitter account; I don’t think the Phoenix really deserved to take the game to overtime as the Bison I think had the extra gear but the hustle to keep going when short and then getting even shorter during the game was admirable and must be applauded whoever you supported last night.

The other was the performance of Frantisek Bakrlik which was, simply put, outstanding. Arguably the best individual performance of either side, the Czech looked constantly dangerous and at times appeared that he would take the game single handed. The issue was that nobody seemed to be able to keep up with him, not in terms of his speed but his play. This was the best I’ve ever seen Bakrlik play in Basingstoke and whether this was his reaction to the adversity that the Phoenix currently face I don’t know but there is no denying he looked like a man possessed at times. His two goals, virtually identical as they were, left Skinns with no chance.

The Phoenix fans in attendance will no doubt gripe about the lack of penalty on the high stick to Hand, as they should given the call that came later to Kovar but sometimes things just don’t go your way. There’s a few things that need rectifying quickly ahead of Sunday’s game with Sheffield but the majority of of the side currently able to play seem willing to fight and that’s promising.

Lowlight of the night: Some of the really bizarre non-calls with regards to offside calls both ways. We always appreciate the efforts of all in the stripes but I became so confused at times last night.

Highlight of the night: Look what happens when you go to the net!

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