Running with the Herd – Bison vs Manchester Phoenix 29/3/15

EPL Playoff ¼ Final

Basingstoke Bison 2-4 Manchester Phoenix

Karpov                         Chamberlain

Greener                        Bakrlik

                                     Corson-Heron

                                      Kovar pp

Manchester Phoenix win 8-7 on aggregate

A step too far: The Bison headed into the game bolstered by not only the 5-4 win the night before in Manchester but also the return to the ice of Tomas Karpov meaning Matt Selby was the only missing name from the roster. The Phoenix headed in without Michal Psurny and talismanic captain Luke Boothroyd.

The game started off with Robin Kovar firing a shot off of the mask of Dean Skinns but for the next few moments it was all Bison as they charged repeatedly towards the net of Steve Fone; a goal line scramble and a chance for Karpov that was saved.

The first big chance for the Phoenix came when Michael Wales’ hit on Frankie Bakrlik was deemed to be charging. The visitors got the puck moving well on the powerplay but ultimately the Herd’s penalty killing unit did enough to see off the man advantage.

The game became incredibly scrappy as the teams tried to establish themselves as the dominant force but out of nowhere the tie was tied up; a turnover in the zone thanks to Jacob Corson-Heron found its way to Bobby Chamberlain who shot over the shoulder of Dean Skinns at 07:41. Game on.

The Bison instantly set back to the attack as Rounding fed Connolly for a chance before the hosts were given a golden opportunity. Joe Greener charged to the net and whilst he couldn’t get past Fone, in the scramble in front as the puck slid goalwards a Phoenix hand closed over the puck. After a delay, Mr Pickett put his arms above his head; penalty shot. Ciaran Long stepped up and tried to slide the puck through the pads of Fone but the Phoenix backstop managed to shut the door in time.

It was a setback but not one that would stop the Bison as they found their spark moments later when Kurt Reynolds’ drive was saved by Fone but the rebound was picked up by Tomas Karpov who cut to the middle and fired home at 12:23 to bring the Herd level on the night and ahead in the contest.

The Bison were handed another big chance when James Archer was called for hooking. Manchester had a good chance when Bakrlik was sent away shorthanded that came to nothing but Joe Greener would be the man to set the home crowd off in cheers when he tipped a Ciaran Long shot past Fone just after the powerplay expired at 16:15.

The Herd were granted another powerplay as Vantroba was hooked by Kovar and the first period wound down with no more goals and the Bison 2 goals up on aggregate.

The second period started brightly for the Bison as the top line combined for a good chance that Doug Sheppard put just wide but the hosts were soon burned; Robin Kovar’s stretch pass set Frankie Bakrlik in behind the defence and he fired past Skinns at 22:30 for 2-2 on the night and the visitors were back within a goal.

The Bison responded to form; shot after shot at Fone’s goal. Basingstoke peppered the Phoenix net as Watt hit the post, a tic tac toe play was stopped by Fone, Greener missed alone in the slot in front of Fone. Then the Bison got caught again; fast break by the Phoenix, Corson-Heron took the zone and snapped the puck past Skinns at 27:10 to tie the overall aggregate score at 7-7.

Grant Rounding collided centre ice with a Phoenix player and had to be helped from the ice and wouldn’t return and it appeared to be a repeat of the knee injury that kept the former Bison junior out for a while during the league campaign.

The game became scrappy again with tons of energy and big hits but few clear cut chances. Bakrlik hit the post and Connolly went close before the crowd were incredulous with rage as Bakrlik and Karpov came together, the Phoenix import grabbed a hold of Karpov’s stick and they fell but only the Bison man was called for a penalty. With the hooking call still ringing in the fans’ ears, disaster struck. A lovely fluid move from the Phoenix drew Skinns down, the puck went to Robin Kovar back door and he lifted it over the downed netminder into the net at 38:15. The Phoenix now lead the tie.

Controversy reigned moments later. Now from my seat in Block C, Declan Balmer and Bakrlik collided heavily in the Bison zone and the Phoenix man was down on the ice hurt for a number of minutes. I’ve heard about 50 different versions of this from intent to injure to maybe two minutes to “come on, it’s the playoffs, you can’t call that”. Whatever our thoughts, Mr Pickett drew the ire of the home fans as he gave Balmer a match penalty for tripping. This was later downgraded to a game as Barklik returned but as the third period ended the Bison were staring down a 1 goal deficit and the best part of a 5 minute penalty kill.

The Bison weathered the storm and managed to kill off the major powerplay without conceding as the Phoenix’s special teams unit stuttered a bit. The Bison then had their own chance as James Archer caught Stuart Mogg with an elbow but the hosts could not take advantage of the powerplay.

The half way point of the period passed and the Bison got another powerplay as Burlin this time went to the box for hooking, again they couldn’t find a way to capitalise as they continued to press but Fone was in rare form and seeing everything that was being thrown his way.

5 minutes, the Bison kept coming. The desperation was starting to sink in.

2 minutes and then Adam Walker was called for hooking. Doug Sheppard called the timeout to try and muster a plan.

60 seconds

40 seconds

20 seconds and Manchester called their timeout.

10 seconds

Time ran out for the Herd. The defence of the playoff title fell at the first hurdle as the end of the playing career of Tony Hand moved on to its final chapter on a much grander stage. The season was over.

Burned: OK, that sucked. It sucked last night and it sucks now because the fan in me is sad. I wanted to see our boys there, I wanted to see them retain the playoff title. It wasn’t to be. The analyst in me looks at it this way; there was effort, there was determination but ultimately in the last few moments there just wasn’t the direction and that crucial final touch. The fan in me though is still massively proud of them for giving everything even if it didn’t come off.

Tomas Karpov had a cast taken off in the week and at times looked like he’d never been away so was probably worthy of man of the match on reflection.

The second period ultimately cost them and whilst I’ll maintain that the penalty on Karpov for what turned out to be the winning goal was called the wrong way, the Bison got caught twice with virtually the same move and paid for it. They then got burned on the powerplay but a great bit of skill and a good quality player was given the space by the net to fire over the keeper who was down. After that the Phoenix shut the Bison down in the final 20 minutes.

This is short I appreciate but it’s simple as this, the better team won. The Bison gave 100% but on the night it wasn’t enough. That hurts but that’s the way it is. They went down swinging and that’s all we can ever ask of them. Curtain Down is coming after the playoffs.

A word on our opponents: Congratulations to Manchester who rebounded from losing the night before and, with a short bench took the opportunities given to them and won the game. They were very much on the back foot at the end of the first but turned the second around and then played almost Bison-esque shut down hockey in the third to see it out.

Whilst some will say Tony Hand got the man of the match because of the occasion, he was actually in the conversation. If I was picking I probably would have given it to Steve Fone who had one of his “brick wall” nights but I won’t begrudge Hand the beers; the fairy tale goes one step further and maybe even one step beyond.

Lowlight of the night: No prizes for guessing.

Highlight of the night: That despite that hurt, how gracious we’re being in defeat. We’ll be back next year.

For a Phoenix view featuring me sounding a bit irate over how knees work, check out the Official Phoenix Podcast from the game here.

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