Running with the Herd – Bison vs Milton Keynes Lightning 18/2/17

EPL

Basingstoke Bison 3-2 Milton Keynes Lightning

Davies                          Hook

Roehl pp                       Bakrlik

Long

The last league strike:

The final regular season game of this season and for the foreseeable future against the Milton Keynes Lightning was an exciting if not particularly skilful game of hockey but it was a much needed win if the Bison wish to keep the momentum going as the playoffs begin to loom.

The game certainly was tense and had a bit of a playoff feel to it in some ways. It was not a massively free flowing game. It was bitty, scrappy and like most Bison vs Lightning games had that very niggly undercurrent that you felt could spark a powder keg. Both teams spent large portions of the game hacking and whacking at each other off the play but it was nothing that needed a lot of penalty calling in the immediacy. It did get worse as the game went on to the point many started to wonder whether things would start getting called but thankfully a lid was kept on most of the dafter things that could have happened.

The first 15 minutes were not kind to the Bison as the Lightning really had them on the back foot in terms of possession and chances, especially after Hiadlovsky let in an uncharacteristically soft goal inside the first two minutes whilst at the other end, Przemyslaw Odrobny was making light work of the shots that came his way. However the late goal, a shot from Antonov that deflected off of the stick of Dan Davies made its way over the line despite Odrobny getting a large piece of it.

The second and third were better periods from the Herd. Where they had seemed to have started a little flat footed, the Bison responded by coming out and playing with real energy and urgency which managed to give them more periods of dominance in the game. It did feel that the Lightning could score if they wanted to but after Bakrlik’s goal rather than panicking they kept with the plan and again found a way to equalise right at the end of a powerplay just after a huge Hiadlovsky save on Lewis Hook. Both teams looked for the third and the one really quality play of the third period resulted in the goal for Ciaran Long and the Bison managed to hold on.

Despite letting in the soft opening goal for the visitors, this was a very good game from Tomas Hiadlovsky. Whilst only officially saving 24 shots he withstood some sustained pressure and made some very good saves, especially the shorthanded save on Hook that was arguably the turning point of the game.

Whilst it would have been fair to give the beers to the Slovakian goalie, I actually agreed with those who picked the man of the match and would have given it to Dan Davies. Davies hasn’t gotten many plaudits this season at times but this was a game where he really shined. It was a real 60 minute shift from the centreman who, in a game which struggled to ever really get going as a slick passing encounter, stood out for his work rate and the all important first goal however fortunate the bounce might be. People may think it’s unfair to Ciaran Long who scored yet another important goal that he didn’t get man of the match but on the night for me, it was Davies and Hiadlovsky who stood out over the other players.

It was an overall team effort from the Bison that got the win in this game. There were times where I wondered what the gameplan was and there were times when players seemed more interested in sending a physical message than playing the puck. It certainly wasn’t the best that the Herd have played this season by a long stretch and there were moments that just made you shake your head (Roehl’s giveaway on the powerplay that gave Hook his chance even saw the American roll his eyes to the sky) but they outlasted the Lightning in the end.

The Bison now have something of a break to build on this win. They can rest up and keep their heads down for what’s to come. Which leads me on to the next bit.

The NIHL Select Game:

With the loss of the Phoenix, the club has announced a game against “an NIHL Select team, made up of players from both the NIHL 1&2.” which will take place next Saturday, 25/2/17. There’s no confirmation as to whether this will include players from NIHL North sides but it would seem unlikely. Next weekend sees only 3 of the current 9 NIHL1 sides without a game; Oxford, Cardiff and Bracknell so unless a fair few players from these sides are prepared to play then we can expect it to be a true mix of NIHL1 and 2 players rather than NIHL1 and a few extras. The game will be counted on the season ticket.

There’s been a bit of a mixed reaction to this; some are obviously unhappy with being charged a season ticket rate for a mid-season uncompetitive game. Others have been more understanding; what else can Planet Ice do when the budget was for a certain number of home games and two have no disappeared? It’s also a chance for the club to promote player development and even a chance for Doug Sheppard to get a look at some players from lower leagues who could be potential Bison players next season. It does save somewhat on scouting if the players come to you.

The obvious answer for many would have been to take the two games owed and transfer them to two of the three playoff games that the Herd will be playing. Planet Ice will immediately point to the budget issue above. For the Bison to be sustainable, they have to stick to that budget and that means finding ways to play games into that two slots and this is one of them. The club also say that they are trying to find a team to fill the other empty slot in March.

I would suggest a compromise between the two positions because that’s what I generally find myself doing. This game next Saturday needs to go ahead. Work has gone in not just from the club but also from the NIHL Management committee and it’s not fair to them to just scrap this. Rather than finding another team to fill that other gap, the second game should be a playoff game. The Bison are certain to have a midweek home game and this is a chance for Planet Ice to get a good bit of PR; after a mediocre season in a substandard facility with a myriad of issues, make the midweek game part of the season ticket. Charge the regular price for walk-up tickets by all means but for a fan’s appreciation night, the middle of playoffs on a night where the Bison traditionally get lower crowds, this is a way to get more people in the rink. Yes there’s a hit to take but you need to spend to make and this would be a way to get some good will.

A word on our opponents:

Back from that diversion, I will admit that I will miss games against the Lightning. Comedy moments aside (chanting “dirty dirty Bison” during a game when Frankie Bakrlik has checked another player in the head might be stretching things a tiny bit) you always know what you’re getting in Lightning games. They’ll be tough, they’ll be scrappy but there will generally be a bit of quality in it. There was more of the first two and less of the third in this game but it was certainly value for the money.

The Lightning started very well and whilst the Bison did come back into the game, the Lightning were never out of it. They constantly threatened the Bison net but I found myself slightly confused by their strategy at times. Despite having a bit of a speed advantage and the balance of play at times, they seemed to want to grind the game out when they really didn’t have to. If they found a way in the later part of the first period to do that then this could have been a very different game in some ways. It seems to be a hallmark of Pete Russell coached teams at times where the hard work comes out as grinding things out. That’s fine to a point but look at that roster; Cownie, Hook, Hölli, Bakrlik, Emersic, Carlon, Scott etc. are not a crew of third line energy guys so why are they not using them to their strengths. Combine that with leaving Odrobny stood on the ice at the hashmarks inside the last minute when the Lightning were in the Bison zone and chasing the game, I was left scratching my head a little.

Despite that oddness, Odrobny is a very good netminder. The Polish international clearly makes a difference to the Lightning defence as they can just let him see the puck and there’s a fair chance that he will stop it. He made numerous good saves and made some of them before the shot with his positioning. This is the 6th time that the Lightning have played the Bison so Odrobny will be aware that the Bison will shoot early and often and adjusted his game to suit that.

The line of Hook, Cownie and Hölli also look really dangerous. Hölli in particular didn’t just make good attacking but also a number of great defensive plays to break up Bison attacks. Whether he remains with the side in the EIHL remains to be seen but certainly a player in that vein should be alongside Cownie and Hook next season.

The big issue with this defeat for the Lightning is that it’s arguably put one Tiger paw on the title trophy. This was a big game in that sense and some unusual tactics arguably cost them the win. With 7 games left, it’s going to take a massive run from the Lightning and a massive collapse from the Tigers to see one of the most storied EPIHL tenures end with the league title.

Lowlight of the night: Bakrlik’s hit on Balmer was unnecessary and dangerous. Why such a talented player can’t learn to check properly is an utter mystery.

Highlight of the night: Long’s goal; timely and pretty.

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