IT WAS far from plain sailing, but the Basingstoke Bison secured their place in the English Premier League Cup final at the end of a dramatic evening in Guildford.
They were comfortable for the opening 40 minutes, going in at the second buzzer level at 2-2, still five goals clear of the Guildford Flames on aggregate with just one period remaining.
However, the hosts scored four goals without reply in the final session, reducing the Bison’s aggregate lead to a single goal with 40 seconds to play.
It was edge of the seat stuff, but the Herd found an unlikely hero in defenceman Kurt Reynolds, whose empty-net strike settled the tie, a 6-3 defeat giving the Bison an 11-9 victory overall.
Bison player/coach Doug Sheppard said: “It was great to make it to a final for all of our brilliant fans, but we did not make it easy for ourselves. Guildford certainly gave it a go tonight.”
Basingstoke went into last night’s game without Andy Melachrino but in confident mood, five goals to the good having won their previous three trips to the Spectrum.
The early stages were tight, with both teams seeing off powerplays, but it was the Flames who broke the deadlock at 16:17, Ben Campbell setting up Milos Melicherik to open the scoring with a nice wrist shot.
There was no further scoring before the first buzzer but the Flames regained the lead at 27:12, Melicherik and Marcus Kristoffersson combining to set up defenceman Branislav Kvetan.
Once again, the Herd found an almost instant response, top scorer Karpov turning on the style to net from close range at 29:01.
The Bison’s Karpov and Guildford’s Kristoffersson both went close before the second buzzer but the sides remained locked together at 2-2 after 40 minutes.
The Flames needed five unanswered goals in the space of 20 minutes to have any chance of retaining the trophy – and they gave themselves a chance by scoring twice in the early stages of the final period.
Kristoffersson got the first at 43:02, beating Skinns after good work from Melicherik, while Kvetan’s second of the night, assisted by Kristoffersson reduced the Herd’s aggregate lead to 10-7 at 45:58.
Guildford took charge of the game but were unable to take advantage of a powerplay when Joe Baird was sent to the sin-bin and suffered a setback when they lost Kvetan for two minutes on a slashing call.
The Bison were unable to add to their lead but seemed comfortable going into the final two minutes with a three-goal lead.
However, Baird then took a slashing penalty and while the Flames lost Kristoffersson to a 10-minute misconduct penalty, they were on the powerplay.
The hosts took full advantage of the extra man, Kvetan completing his hat-trick with a clinical finish to reduce the Bison’s lead to two goals at 58:23.
The visitors then lost Aaron Connolly to the sin-bin and again the Flames made them pay, Basingstoke-born forward Nicky Watt netting from close range at 59:20 to set up a grandstand finish.
Having successfully pulled their netminder for Watt’s goal, Guildford did the same thing again following the centre face-off, but Reynolds ensured victory for the Herd, finding the empty net from his own zone at 59:28.
The Bison saw out the remaining 32 seconds and will face either the Manchester Phoenix or Milton Keynes Lightning in a two-legged final. They are locked at 5-5 after the first leg in Milton Keynes, with the second match due to take place in Manchester next Wednesday.
The Herd are next in action on Saturday, when they are at home to the Swindon Wildcats. Visit basingstokegazette.co.uk/sport for live text coverage.