This was a huge fixture for both sides with Phantoms desperate to at least ice their already hard earned cake with a trip to Coventry and Bison desperate to just grab a cake before the shop closed and it was going to close for both teams by 8:30pm Sunday evening !
The social media hype from Bisonland all week left fans in no doubt as to how “up for it” the home side were going to be, even if some of their promotional posts were a little strange to say the least. By 6:30pm the rink was pretty rammed with a very pumped up home contingent and the Phantoms Barmy Army who more than made up for lack of numbers with volume ….. lots of volume ….. and drums …… and plastic horns !
In the same fixture just a few weeks back in the South Cup Final, Phantoms jumped out of the blocks and forced Bison onto the backfoot for a full rotation of shifts ….. a move that set the tone for the remainder of the game but tonight, it would have taken all four lines on the ice at the same time to achieve the same goal !
Bison came out, as the hype suggested they would, absolutely eye-balls out and Phantoms struggled to hang onto them. It was five men forward – five men back – repeat. Phantoms tried to stay with their tried and tested Plan A and play their normal controlled game, moving the puck around their own zone and passing their way forward but Bison knew they couldn’t allow that to happen and they were all over Phantoms D-men like a rash, not allowing any time on the puck and forcing us to turn the puck over time and time again.
Thankfully for Phantoms, Bison have lacked a major goalscoring capability all season and despite creating opportunities, not least thanks to four minutes of near back-to-back powerplay, their finishing was tame and sometimes plain woeful. When they did get it close, Jordan Marr was playing with a Superman vest on under his Camo top and was throwing himself onto every lose puck within his range.
Bison did grab a single marker for their efforts when Hallam Wilson found huge space on a 3on2 breakout to race in from wide and shoot home inside Marr’s far post but there was a sense among Phantoms fans that a single goal lead after a period of huge territorial advantage for the home side was probably more pleasing for Phantoms than for Bison.
All eyes were focused on how period two would start. Would we see a cunning plan thrown into the mix by either coach ? Answer was “no” as Bison simply picked up where they left off and continued to take the game to Phantoms. It wasn’t pretty but then games between these two never are. Bison simply dumped pucks repeatedly into Phantoms zone and then got numbers in to keep it there, resulting in a hugely attritional, bump and grind fest in the corners and behind Jordan Marr’s goal.
The mistake Bison probably made was that Phantoms, by now, were getting quite used to it all and were bumping and grinding pretty darned well and were happy to invest all five players into the process too. On the rare occasions Phantoms moved the puck over half-way, the priority was always to grab a line change rather than gamble on attacking plays but even if it may have appeared our tactics were little more subtle than to throw a heavy quilt over the exuberant Bison and then sit on it for as long as we could, it was working.
In a period devoid of any penalties so far, a big moment came with just 48 seconds left when an off-balance Tom Norton tried to sweep the puck off a Bison stick only to miss and whip the legs away instead to set up a late powerplay but, just as significant, gift Bison the opportunity to start a huge final period with an extra man. As it was, the goal nearly came in the last seconds of period two as shots rained in on Jordan Marr who bounced them all out with every limb he possessed and even stopped a last second shot with his helmet to keep it at 1-0 !
Period three and that dammed powerplay. Bison went for it, Phantoms heroically defended it …… or at least they did until four seconds from its demise when Norcliffe found big space on the back stick to fire home a behind the net feed for 2-0.
Now it was question time for both coaches. Do Bison bank what they have and look to hold or do they go for the kill ? Do Phantoms fancy turning a two goal deficit around at Bretton and stick to their rearguard actions or do they look to respond ?
I don’t know which of those decisions were taken, if any, but straight from the face-off there looked to be a certain sense of snarling frustration among Phantoms players who at last not only threw bodies forward but started to throw rubber at Alex Mettam who had only seen eight shots in the entire game so far. Bison seemed a little uncertain about this ….. suddenly Phantoms didn’t seem so resigned to sitting deep in numbers and were starting to outskate the home side. Face-offs were suddenly being won by Phantoms as were most 50/50s and you sensed some heavenly force had lifted the ice-pad at one end of the rink and tilted it towards the Bison goal.
For all the obvious change in momentum, Phantoms needed a goal and it came on 45:34 when Corey McEwen scuffed a face-off win across to Petr Stepanek who had lined up alongside him and outside of the face-off itself too so he was at some angle but managed to get off a negligible backlift snap-shot on goal that nobody saw coming and which Alex Mettam certainly never saw coming. Stepanek jumped for joy and punched the air with a cry of passion that must have unsettled the home side ….. Phantoms were on the board and the beast had been awoken !
It was now one way traffic. Bison were skating around with battery lights flashing on every player and Phantoms were in no mood to ignore the invitation to pour it on. Just 80 seconds after Stepanek’s marker, Phantoms tied the game on the powerplay when Scott Robson ghosted in from point to take a feed from the corner and beat Mettam top shelf. Bison looked in dire need of a time-out but, inexplicably, they chose to soldier on and attempt to hold back and even turn around the tide that was now flowing strongly against them ….. not a smart move with flagging players I would suggest !
Phantoms completed their big comeback with a third goal within less than nine minutes and, just to underline the advantages of using a long bench in games like this, it was Phantoms “fourth line” who delivered the knockout punch. Taylor Romeo wrestled his way out of the corner where he was being pinned to the boards and instinctively fired along the goalline to Mettam on his near post but the Bison netminder’s attempt to make a routine catch went horribly wrong as the puck squirted out in front just as Jarvis Hunt was trailing in unmarked and the Phantoms youngster absolutely buried the rebound to unleash limbs across the Phantoms travelling fans who were right behind the goal !
Phantoms were then caught in their own two minds as to whether to continue the onslaught or simply take what they had and it appeared to my eyes that they chose the latter but they did more than enough to blunt any offensive efforts from an exhausted Bison in the closing minutes to close out a 3-2 road win.
MOM beers went to Jordan Marr who simply found ways to keep the puck out when we needed him most but it was another big all-team effort from Phantoms and it needed to be.
Sunday’s second leg will not be easy. Bison don’t serve up “easy”. Its a long bus journey up to Bretton and they WILL have a plan, rest assured. Be ready for a very intensive effort from Bison who will give Phantoms very little room to play so stay patient !
Phantoms will need to rotate four lines as much as they can get away with. Bison are limping along with 2/3 players who are not fully fit and may even miss the game so their bench WILL be shorter. Period one will be Bison’s best and they’ll still be at the coalface in period two but if we play this right then we will dominate the final period as they tire. It would be great to score early and extend our advantage but if Bison get the start, do not panic because we WILL overpower them as the game moves on.
Should be a great night …… BE THERE !!!