Friday, 4 October 2013

Sobering Night

It was a grand night at the old barn as the University of Manitoba Bisons men's hockey team opened the season. There was a major ceremony before the game that I'll discuss below, there were presentations made, and there were cheers and applause from the solid crowd on-hand. After that, however, things went about as horribly as one can imagine as the Bisons were out-skated, outscored, and out-everything that mattered. No, this wasn't the start they wanted against what should be the Canada West Conference's top team in the Alberta Golden Bears.

Things looked promising for the first six minutes as the Bisons sent wave after wave of players into the Albert Golden Bears' zone. The action was solid as both teams went up and down the ice, but you could sense that the Bears were feeling the Bisons out on home ice. Gradually, there was less play in the Bears' zone and more in the Bisons' zone. And gradually, the ice seemed to slant more and more in one direction.

By the time the second period ended, it seemed as though Bisons goalie Joe Caligiuri worked for Goodyear with the amount of vulcanized rubber he was turning aside. The penalty kill was victimized a number of times by what seemed to be the same play. The powerplay gave up a shorthanded marker and was constantly forced to retrieve the puck from their own end. In short, there weren't many bright spots. But there were a few!

Defenceman Jeremy Schappert was solid with outlet passes all night, and threw a couple of bone-shattering checks that caused a few scrums to develop. He was also responsible for a couple of goal-line saves in bailing out Caligiuri. Defenceman Darren Bestland throw a couple of monsterous hit and was mixing things up all night with the Bears, reminding this writer of former Moose Darryl Bootland with his tenacity. Captain Dane Crowley was a solid force on the back-end as well as he routinely rubbed out forwards and limited chances. These three would easily be my Top-Three Bisons of the night.

Looking at the game action, Jamie Crooks put the Bisons down 1-0 just seven minutes in when he was left wide-open to the left of the net. The puck found his stick off a nice cross-ice feed, and he made no mistake in going shelf past Caligiuri as he stretched to no avail. Later in the period with the Bears on the powerplay, defenceman Jordan Rowley walked the blueline, pulling everyone to the right side before crushing a slapshot to Caligiuri's left that found the back of the net to put the Bears up by a pair. And with just 14 seconds left in the frame, Ian Barteaux converted a feed to put the Bears up by three. Perhaps the worst part was that they had out-shot the Bisons by a staggering 15-2 at that point.

Jordan Hickmott and Levko Koper extended the lead to 5-0 through two periods, but, again, it was the difference in play that was evident between the two teams. The Bisons were far more physical than the Bears were, but the Bears made pinpoint passes from tape-to-tape and simply were the faster team. By the time the final horn sounded for the second period, the Bears had a 25-4 shot advantage.

I will say that the Bisons had their chances. Twice, the Bisons had Alberta goaltender Kurtis Mucha at their mercy as they moved the puck across the crease to get Mucha moving laterally, but the puck was fired high and wide both times to count for nothing. Mucha, at one point, was down-and-out in his crease, but the Bisons were unable to get a shot with the swarming Bears defence, let alone elevating the puck over the prone goalie. Chances were there, but the finish shown by the Bisons left the crowd wanting. To say the least.

There was one thing that bothered me in watching this game. The Bisons employed a collapsed box in front of Caligiuri when on the penalty kill. The Bears recognized this almost immediately and played the puck back to their defencemen who literally appeared to be able to shoot at will. Because the Bears utilized an umbrella powerplay scheme, there was always a man at the top to hammer the puck at Caligiuri who routinely had traffic in front of him. The Bears scored two goals - a powerplay and an even-strength goal - using this system, and the Bisons never adapted nor changed their approach.

This is something that the Bisons will seriously have to look at in the coming weeks of practice. Alberta exploited it fairly easily, and the ability of the Bisons to close out quickly on the point men was lacking. If the Bisons want to play physical, they have to expect a few penalties. But they won't win many games if their defensive zone coverage looks like it did tonight.

The Bisons and Bears battle again Saturday night at 6pm. Tickets are available, so get down to Max Bell, er, Wayne Fleming Arena!

As stated, the arena that the Bisons call home, formerly Max Bell Arena, was officially named as the Wayne Fleming Arena tonight! Wayne Flaming was a former University of Manitoba Bisons men's hockey player and head coach who achieved the highest honour as he coached in the NHL. Sadly, he passed away from brain cancer on March 25, 2013 at the age of 62 in Calgary. The Snow Lake, Manitoba native coached nine seasons with the Bisons from 1980 until 1989, being named the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union Coach of the Year in 1985. The Bisons honoured the former player and coach with a few presentations before branding the arena in his name!

Congratulations to the Fleming family on this great honour. The Bisons will try to even their record with a win tomorrow at the newly-named Wayne Fleming Arena after dropping the season opener. Get your tickets, and join the Herd, and go Bisons!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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