Running with the Herd – Bison vs Swindon Wildcats 13/3/16

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 5-4 Swindon Wildcats

Long x2 …………………..Höög x3 (1pp)

Lack ……………………….Harding

Karpov x2 (1pp)

Ciaran Long (white) scores to make the score 1-1 on the way to the Bison's win over Swindon securing the club's first league in 23 years. (c) 5 Hole Photography

Ciaran Long (white) scores to make it 1-1 on the way to the Bison’s win over Swindon securing the club’s first league in 23 years.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

The easy way, the hard way and the Bison way: The Bison headed into the game with a nearly full roster. Alex Symonds was still missing, as were the players with NIHL commitments but Ryan Sutton was in the line up and Jon Baston was started in net ahead of Tomas Hiadlovsky. The Wildcats were missing Callum Buglass but otherwise at full strength as Stevie Lyle started his first game of the season in Basingstoke.

The teams traded early forays into the the other’s zone; Kostal and Nell tested Baston where Balmer, Reynolds and Connolly put shots on Lyle that were saved. The game fell very quickly into the pattern that games between Basingstoke and Swindon usually take in Hampshire as the Herd played the high press and put lots of shots on Lyle and the Wildcats sat back, absorbed the pressure with Lyle able to handle the onslaught then looked to counter.

The hosts were having the more of the play and more of a chances as a result but couldn’t get past the GB international in the Wildcats’ net. Tomas Karpov had two good chances but neither could spell breakthrough for the Bison. All that pressure and all those chances should have told but it was the visitors who were on the scoreboard first. Having soaked up another few waves of pressure the Wildcats broke out and with the puck loose in front of Baston’s net, Jonas Höög managed to bundle the puck past Baston at 11:41.

The majority of the rink went into shock and near silence at the opening goal but were brought to their feet moments later as the Herd found the instant response. Tomas Karpov charged through the Wildcats defence, came around the back of the net and fed the puck into the wheelhouse of Ciaran Long who neatly finished past Lyle at 11:58 to tie the scores.

The Bison had their tails up and the previous pattern of the game resumed until Alan Lack was called for tripping after some long consideration of the incident from Mr Matthews. The Wildcats powerplay saw Höög and Finucci both go close but Baston denied them both. The next chance for Swindon’s Swedish fan favourite saw him take the puck in neutral ice, go around one man then another, work his way to the slot and snap the wrist shot through the legs of Baston at 17:57 just as Lack’s penalty was due to expire.

The teams wound the first period down and despite having had more of the chances (albeit by design), the Bison found themselves a goal down and the tension in the rink was palpable.

The Bison got an early second period chance to level the scores as former Bison, Matt Selby was called for tripping Karpov just 39 seconds into the middle frame but the hosts failed to get much going and the Wildcats’ defenceman returned with no change to the scoreboard.

The visitors maintained their game plan from the first; the Bison were the ones that needed to score so it was a case of wait for them to press too hard and then strike with their superior speed up the middle of the ice.

With the above taken as read, it was the speed of the Bison’s forwards that got them their equaliser. Tomas Karpov and Alan Lack managed to spring the two on one. Lack raced to the net, Karpov held the puck and fired the pass across. With Lyle unable to get fully across the net Lack eventually managed to pot his own rebound into the net at 25:24.

After an impressive feat from Matt Selby where he managed to simultaneously check Karpov and Lack, the Bison once again settled into the rhythm of the early game with chances heading towards Lyle’s net. Balmer, Jarolin, Long and Greener all had chances turned away. Swindon were patient and took the chances that came; Sam Bullas came closest as his move beat his man but his shot couldn’t beat the glove of Baston.

Despite a really good hit from Neil Liddiard to Aaron Connolly, it was the hosts that were considerably closer to breaking the 2-2 deadlock as Jarolin and Greener again tested Lyle.

With the game starting to take on a real end to end feel, the Bison managed to find the way through. With the puck to Lyle’s right and nobody seemingly able to get a handle on it after it had rebounded off of the netminder, Tomas Karpov managed to corral the puck and his backhand shot squeaked past Lyle at 33:01 to put the Bison in front for the first time in the evening.

The teams had a brief period of 4 on 4 play as Neil Liddiard and Alan Lack were both given roughing penalties as they grappled on the floor following a scramble in front of Lyle.

The Wildcats probed as the period headed to its conclusion but the found a way through. Carlo Finucci had done his best Höög impression but had been denied by Baston. The original article was the one to tie the scores as the Bison defence stood off of the Swede as he made his way to the slot and snapped the shot under Baston’s arm at 38:07 for 3-3.

The second buzzer rang out with the Bison back on level terms but having been so close to leading at the second break there was nobody in the building that was counting any chickens.

The final period started with a mildly scary moment as Tomasz Malasinski went to the net and barrelled through Jon Baston but luckily there was no damage to the Finn. Baston would also take a shot to the mask a few moments later that drew no stoppage despite the Bison netminder clearly needing a moment afterwards to shake the cobwebs clear.

The crowd was already very on edge and they were sent into a mixture of excitement and even more nerves when the Bison replicated their first goal. Tomas Karpov again drove goalwards and took the defenders to him which allowed Ciaran Long the space to take the pass and fire past Lyle for his second of the night and 4-3 Bison at 44:11.

Rather than sit back, the hosts kept pressing on for another but nearly got caught out a couple of times as the Wildcats caused some occasional panics in front of Baston’s net. The most dangerous saw the puck bobble around then loop up in the air before Ciaran Long leapt into the air and caught the puck before clearing the danger.

Tomas Karpov would again be heavily involved in the major action of the game. A nice pass set the Czech forward away up the central channel before he was hooked back by Jan Kostal in what many would probably file under “necessary penalties”. Whilst that chance was snuffed out, there was nothing that could be done on the ensuing powerplay. Karpov took the puck at the point from Shaun Thomposon, walked along the blueline into the middle and floated a shot on net. Through traffic, Lyle didn’t see the puck until it was past him at 49:54 for 5-3 Bison.

From that point onwards, the Bison went into shutdown mode. If the Wildcats were wanting to spoil the party then the hosts dared them to come at them and try. The roles from the majority of the game were reveresed as the Bison prepared themselves to weather the storm of Wildcats’ chances. This lead to a lot of nervous moments for the home crowd. Malasinski had a shot stopped by a diving Miroslav Vantroba and Carlo Finucci’s drive to the net was denied by a neat little pokecheck from Baston.

The Bison still managed to craft chances through Long, Karpov and Lack whilst the visitors still managed to cause panicked pile-ups in front of Baston’s net as people’s nails were starting to be thoroughly gnawed upon. Lyle in particular made a very nice glove save as Karpov laid off for a shot from Long that was windmilled out of the air.

Time ticked down as everyone, even this writer in his near permanent state of denial about what was slowly becoming a reality, became more and more raucous as they tried to will the Bison over the line.

Swindon took their timeout at 58:50 with the faceoff to the left of Baston and Lyle left on the bench. The Bison won the faceoff as Ciaran Long made it over half way then dumped the puck into the Swindon zone only for play to be called back inexplicably for icing despite the Bison forward being comfortably over the red line. Off of the faceoff, the puck was worked back to Adam Harding who drove low through the crowd and beat Baston down low at 58:59 to put everybody’s hearts in their mouths.

Lyle went back in for the faceoff but was quickly back off of the ice as the Wildcats piled the pressure on. 56 seconds to go; more pressure, everyone on the ice seemingly in Baston’s crease but the puck could not find a way over the line.

With about 20 seconds to go the puck dropped on the final faceoff and the Bison managed to force play out of the zone and towards the other end of the ice as Aaron Connolly and Joe Greener raced in on the forecheck to try and shut down any last glimmer of a chance.

The players wheeled back towards Jon Baston’s net as a shower of sticks and helmets rained down upon the ice. Supporters old and new, young and old jumped and shouted and screamed in delight because a 23 year wait had come to an end. The Basingstoke Bison were EPIHL champions. For the first time since the club changed its name, they were number 1.

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The party on the pad begins. (c) 5 Hole Photography

The party on the pad begins.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

Winning the marathon: Above I wrote that I was in something of a state of denial about what was happening and I genuinely was for a bit. I’ve been around Basingstoke hockey for a decade now and after the lean years and the really lean years, to see the roster flood off the bench to mob Jon Baston was a surreal moment for many of us who stuck it out through the dark times.

The game was a nail biting one to say the least. If you were a neutral in the rink last night or that was your first game of hockey then you were in for a treat as what you got was a team gunning for the ultimate prize up against a team determined to spoil the party. It made for a great spectacle.

Tomas Karpov was a very obvious choice for man of the match, going 2+3 in a game where your team scores 5 goals and scoring the game winner will do that for you. All the goals on the night came from the line of Karpov, Lack and Long with the Czech at the heart of everything creatively for the Herd. He caused the Wildcats’ defence all manner of issues and was always looking to create. Arguably the Bison’s creative engine since he arrived at the club, Karpov stepped up in the biggest of ways when he was needed to. By my reckoning, Tomas has the 2014 cup winning goal (remember Melachrino’s goal gave us a 2 goal margin), the 2014 playoff winning goal and at 49:54 on Sunday 13th March 2016, the championship winning goal.

Whilst on any other night, Jon Baston’s 80% save percentage on the game would send us in to fits of bemusement, it didn’t matter. Also to Baston’s credit whilst two of Jonas Höög’s shots would have beaten any goalie, the low shot count for the Wildcats doesn’t do justice to the amount of pressure he withstood. He kept his composure during the panicked moments at the end and that seriously helped in the death.

One person who I thought had his best game for a little while was Shaun Thompson. Alongside Matt Towalski, Thompson who won the EPL in 2007 with Bracknell, provided some much needed grit and support for the scorers but his work rate was off the charts last night. In some ways Thompson’s performance was symptomatic of the entire squad’s performance. Yes there were wobbles and nerves but they went through the wall and got their reward.

The game won’t go down as the best performance of the season by a long chalk, they did make it hard for themselves in amongst all the nerves but good teams, championship winning teams find ways to win when the going gets tough even if they’ve made it tough for themselves. 23-3 at home across the season heading into the last weekend is symptomatic of why the Bison are champions. Doug Sheppard’s roster have their just reward for their consistency.

A word on our opponents: When I met up with Ben Callaghan of On The Prowl before the game he said to me “the Cats are up for this, they really don’t want you to win it tonight.” He wasn’t wrong.

When you consider the other 2 games in Basingstoke this season, it was like a different Swindon Wildcats side. They were focussed, they played their systems well, they tried to play a game plan that would stop the Bison’s natural game but it just wasn’t their night.

The one big change from the other games in Basingstoke was the appearance of Stevie Lyle. Lyle was in the middle of his mid-season sabbatical and with GB on the previous two occasions and he seemed to be having one of those nights. Lyle has reportedly been carrying a groin issue which did see him make some odd movements but didn’t stop him making a string of good saves.

If Karpov was an easy choice for the Bison’s beers, Jonas Höög was just as easy a choice for the visitors. His first goal wasn’t pretty by any stretch but the second and third were highlight reel efforts where he benefited from the Bison defence giving him too much space. The second goal is better than the third though. It was one of those goals where as an opposition fan you curse it happening then applaud it for its quality.

The only person who I might have considered giving the beers to was Jan Kostal who had a really solid game for the visitors. Yes, his penalty led to the Bison’s 5th goal but that was a necessary penalty to take at the time and he just ruled the face off circle during the evening. He was the closest anyone came to slowing Karpov and Sheppard had to use the advantage of the last change to try and keep the two apart.

Swindon, with nothing to play for other than pride could have come in and just not bothered. They could have played out the game and conserved themselves for the playoffs in a fortnight. Instead they looked to make a statement at the Bison’s expense and nearly did so. Swindon’s season has been one of inconsistency, it’s almost becoming a Wildcat’s trademark but Aaron Nell has an easy to say, hard to do job over the summer; find whatever it was that brought that spirit out of his team over the summer and make it something they can do on a regular basis.

Lowlight of the night: You know what? We’ll let everything slide today.

Highlight of the night: Well for me it was Karpov’s winner combined with the chant in the bar of “Rene Jarolin, he scores with his face”. Here are some other highlights;

(c) 5 Hole Photography

(c) 5 Hole Photography

Hush you 😉

wildcats

The annual YMCA competition didn't get off to the best of starts. (c) 5 Hole Photography

The annual YMCA competition didn’t get off to the best of starts.
(c) 5 Hole Photography

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