Running with the Herd – The Basingstoke Bison’s 2018/19 playoffs

Due to some family issues (and if you’ve been checking out the What’s Current Stream over on our Twitter account, I’ve talked about it there) writing up the playoff games for the Bison was a challenge. Now the dust has settled, BOTW has not skipped a Bison game we’ve watched live so we went back and added the element of hindsight to the mix.

Streatham:

I’ve made no secret over the Bison’s stay in NIHL 1 South that I like Streatham. For a while I wasn’t a Jeremy Cornish fan when he played. When he signed for Basingstoke in 2008, I got a phone call from David Grant, one of the founders of the UK All Stars charity weekends. “Anthony, you’ll love him. Totally different prospect when he plays for you, watch all the things he does.” Dave was right; in a tough season Cornish won Bison fans over and he took that mentality as a player into coaching. Streatham under his tenure may not have been the flashiest or the most skilful but they were arguably the most honest team. You knew what you were getting and just like he did on the Isle of Wight, a Jeremy Cornish coached team is hard nosed and comes at you.

It’s no secret that the Bison were favourites going into this series and over the course of the two games they showed why. Streatham knew they needed to disrupt a bit, knew they needed to take every chance that they got. The Bison gave them some chances but not enough for them to do anything with. Alex Roberts made some impact but not enough, Adam Carr made some impact but not enough, the secondary scoring at forward and defence was kept quiet and in the second leg, Damian King didn’t have a good game.

However the Bison were made to work for their series win. Two 5-2 wins is not the sort of blowout that happened in the Swindon/Invicta or Peterborough/MK series. The Bison were given a test even if it was a test that they comfortably passed.

The good surprise was the goal scoring prowess of Danny Ingoldsby. For teams to win the playoffs requires players who are not normally relied on for changing the game to do things unexpected of them. Reminiscent of Devante Smith-Pelly during the Washington Captials run to the 2018 Stanley Cup, Ingoldsby ended the series with 3 goals when he’s managed just two during the regular season. Ingoldsby benefited from being put on a line with Michal Klejna who seemed almost insistent at time to try to set up the young Brit than shoot himself. Ingoldsby is made for playoff hockey. Stylistically that sort of high intensity crash and bang does not suit itself to a 30 or 40 game regular season but a short burst is perfect for this style of play. Ingoldsby creates space for the higher skilled players on his line (in this case, Klejna and Tait) but it works both ways. Streatham were focussing so much on Tait and Klejna that Ingoldsby got space and suddenly pulled that quality of shot out of his back pocket.

Other things came into play; Richard Bordowski had been quieter since his return from injury and came back to the fore, Liam Morris continued on defence and never looked out of place, even if the top lines didn’t score they were running Streatham ragged. It was always looking like going the Bison way.

The bad thing was the loss of Adam Jones. With the possible exception of Russ Cowley, Jones was arguably the most consistent player on the roster all season and a hip injury saw him sit both games of the series. Whilst it seems to be hard wired into hockey players to do feats of ludicrous daring to rival the Great Gonzo during the playoffs, if a player isn’t fit then he or she should sit. The Bison were able to adapt enough during this series and what the Bison needed was a fit Adam Jones with the prospect of Peterborough looming on the horizon.

At the time it was obviously going to be a tough test but there was the hope that the Bison getting a proper warm up from a feisty Streatham team as opposed to Peterborough who overpowered the Thunder.

Peterborough:

Having had time to reflect on this, this really was a chance lost for the Bison. They could have beaten the Phantoms. In a lot of ways it was the archetypical Phantoms game and the Bison fell into it. Lots of the puck, make most of the running but run out of steam a bit and get stung. Riding the hot netminder in Jordan Marr, the Phantoms soaked up the pressure and the chances then struck. The Bison were not clinical enough in the long run and it cost them.

The first Phantoms goal was almost acceptable to the point I clapped it as Petr Stepanek fired a shot into the top corner that no keeper anywhere was going to have a chance of stopping but the other two were avoidable. Tait beaten out of the corner and Scott Robson gets a shot away that shouldn’t have happened then Alex Mettam scuffing a shot from Taylor Romeo onto the stick of Jarvis Hunt just made the entire tie feel like deja vu. I’ve had discussions since the game with Dan Breen and Phil Smith who commentate on the Phantoms livestreams about it but the Bison play, for me, the better hockey of the two sides. Better and effective are different things.

Heading into the second leg it was an uphill struggle. The Bison however felt like they were still playing into the Phantoms’ game. The effort was there but somehow the execution wasn’t and it cost them.

The Herd were also hampered by injuries to Adam Jones and Jay King meaning the defence was shuffled a bit in both games including Russ Cowley, the team’s best distributor of the puck, playing on defence. However that doesn’t excuse the wider issues with the Herd not being clinical enough.

Given that this piece is coming out after the fact and the NHL playoffs are going on I’ve been wondering about narrative. I don’t believe in luck but as a writer I do believe in narrative. Stories happen every day in every walk of life. The Phantoms got their three trophies through playing effective and well drilled (albeit reductionist and dull) hockey but they got the treble. It’s a nice tying up of the bow for 2018/19 for them.

So what about the Herd? The Bison got up off their knees this season and bonded together; club and fans. Is a cup final loss, third place and the playoff semis the end of the story? Maybe it’s just part of a larger narrative for Ashley Tait’s era coaching this club. If you’re not sure of where I’m going with this (and to avoid spoilers) go watch how Rocky staring Sylvester Stalone ends. What you think is the end of the story is simply the end of the chapter.

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