Oxford City Stars enjoyed their first 4 point weekend in NIHL1 for five years and it was a pretty masterful performance at Milton Keynes to seal their victory tonight. Their game was confident and assured, with free-flowing hockey and strong passing being hallmarks of the game. It may just have been the best I have seen them play, certainly this season.
Oxford came out of the blocks fast and were one up just after the 3 minute mark. Dax Hedges turning in a pass from Joe Edwards. The pressure throughout the game from Stars was excellent. When they are playing well, Oxford really click together and this was one of those nights. The last Oxford game I watched was the dreadful 5-4 loss in Cardiff and this was like a different team out there. Stars were forechecking hard (and Alan Green’s goal came from stealing the puck on a forecheck), passing really well and playing for each other all over the rink. They dominated the first and second periods with their fast players, and kept MK confined in their end for long periods of time.
MK’s performance surprised me to be honest, I really expected them to be stronger, especially on home ice. Jamie Line still looked very good and his speed on the puck is simply outstanding. Ross Bowers also showed glimpses of what he was capable of. However, as a team they just didn’t seem to be clicking and had gaps in their defence that you could have driven a truck through at times. They seemed to only wake up after their 2nd goal and the final ten minutes of hockey gave us a real game with MK throwing themselves at the Oxford net. Unfortunately for them, the Oxford defence had themselves well organised and played good percentage hockey, limiting MK mostly to shots at angles or from distance. But the game definitely turned from being dominated by Oxford to one that was much more even and while, as an Oxford fan, I am very happy with the reslt – as a hockey fan I wish MK had played like that from the start of the game as i think it could have been one hell of a good match to watch if they had. They certainly showed much more of what they were capable of then in the first 50 minutes where we saw just the odd glimpse.
So for Oxford, the positives have to be that all three forward lines were very much in form and seem to be a little more settled, at least for now. Import defenceman Boris Ruzicka already seemed to have settled in and will certainly be one of our top defenders this season. He may not have scored this weekend, but more important to Stars is the solidity and strong play he brings to their defence. Oxford’s second new import, Ondrej Pekarik, looked a little rusty still – perhaps unsurprising as this was only his 2nd game in two years – but he showed promise – and perhaps more importantly is already scoring goals even when he is probably not at 100% fitness yet. The goal he scored tonight was calm and well taken, showing a sense of knowing his own ability as he deked King – moving him out of position and then calmly slotted the puck into the net.
Oxford negatives – discipline again. Not as bad as in some games, but still taking some silly minor penalties and giving away powerplays. I actually think that the Stars PK unit is mostly working fairly well at the moment, but we are using it a lot more than we should. The other issue tonight was the netminder. Yes Shannon Long made some good saves and earned himself a 94% save rate tonight – but he just takes too many stupid risks tonight. For me, a netminder should be absolutely certain that he can get the puck if he is going to come out of his crease – but on 3 different occasions tonight Long failed to do this. He got away with it twice (although it could be argued that had play not stopped because his helmet came off when he fell over the second time he came out, the outcome could have been considerably worse than him simply looking like a muppet). On the third occasion though – when he went for a puck in the corner that he had no business being near, he missed the puck and Jamie Line was able to swoop in, take it behind the net and slide it home. Long needs to stop trying to play his team-mates’ positions and stop being so keen to leave his crease. On Saturday, assuming that Simon Anderson sticks with his ‘winner stays on’ method of selecting goalies, he will play against Chelmsford and he needs to make sure that his concentration is much higher. Chieftains will punish any lapses in concentration and foolish plays a lot more than MK did today.
But overall, I have to give credit to the Stars for an excellent performance tonight. Two bigs wins this weekend is really important. They have the chance to make amends somewhat as they play Cardiff again at home next Sunday. If they play like they did tonight, they should blow Cardiff out of the water. In some ways they need to concentrate far more on that game than the one against Chelmsford the night before.