Last night was one of the most incredible performances by the Oxford City Stars that I have ever seen. In a 6-4 win, that gave the rest of the league hope that Chelmsford were in fact fallible, the Stars put together the kind of consistent and determined game that they have been threatening for a while.
Let’s not get carried away here. I am not going to pretend that Oxford were far and away the better team on the ice last night. I’m honestly not sure that they were the better team at all – but I am not taking anything away from their win by saying that – if anything that’s what made it so impressive. For three incredible periods, Oxford were determined, disruptive and never say die. Chelmsford had more possession throughout the game than Oxford, especially in the second and third periods and came forward with wave after wave of attacks that were absolutely relentless. I think it wasn’t until we scored the empty net goal to make it 6-3 with 1:26 left on the clock that I honestly started to believe Oxford would take both points! That’s how good the Chieftains were – you could see them getting a draw or even taking both points and turning the scoreline on its head right up until the end.
In the first period, Oxford’s defending approach was ‘throw anything and everything in front of them’ – and it worked, but it was a little desperate at times. The second and the third periods are where I have to give major credit to coach Simon Anderson as he clearly changed the system to help soak up the pressure and played more of a 2-1-2 game with the centre mostly staying high on the attack so that he would be back in time when Chelmsford broke. This meant we usually had three players back straight away which was needed as Chelmsford almost attack as a three. Yes, they had the occasional one or two man rush but this is a very well drilled team who excel at moving forward as a unit, weave and pass brilliantly and if you don’t defend as a team you will be sunk.
What Oxford did more than anything else was play smart – from their goals to their defence. Their third goal on the powerplay from Boris Ruzicka was a case in point. He got the puck on the blue line and everyone expected the bullet from the blue line that has already become his trademark. Instead, he saw a gap, skated in and scored with a well placed wrist shot from the top of the circles instead that simply fooled Clements, who probably would have been ready for the blue line slapshot. The empty-net goal at the end from Ben Ealey Newman was another case of smart play: a hard forecheck stole the puck in the neutral zone, but instead of immediately shooting on the open goal, he pushed forward, dodged an oncoming defenceman and skated close enough to be 100% sure of netting his shot. Even if he hadn’t got past his man, this play would have wasted more time than an early shot, ensured no chance of an icing call and showed a calm beyond his years.
Stars 4th goal, late in the second period was a mixture of both this smart play and a really good dose of luck. Tom Avery came out of the penalty box at the perfect moment and found himself behind the Chelmsford defence, on top of a puck that came loose. But instead of rushing forward himself, Avery saw Green flying down centre ice and made an unselfish and perfect pass that went right onto Green’s stick so he didn’t even have to break stride to collect it, meaning he entered the Chelmsford end still flying and in complete control of himself and the puck and able to finish with the kind of skill he is known for. Would Avery have scored if he went for it himself? Maybe. But what he did was the smarter play in the circumstances, showed an awareness of his team mates and that was the trademark of this performance for Oxford.
The other big difference for Oxford last night was an absolute ‘never say die’ attitude. They went after every single loose puck, went hard and won pucks that that maybe they shouldn’t have. They certainly won more than their fair share of the 50/50 pucks last night by sheer hard work and determination. When they lost the puck, they didn’t pause for a second but instead gave everything they had to win it back. I remember one incident in the third period when Ruzicka had the puck stolen from him by James Ayling on his own blue line. He immediately turned and stole it right back again before Ayling had the chance to gain complete control and that just summed up the attitude of Oxford last night.
The best words I have to describe Oxford’s defending last night are ‘disruptive’, ‘high concentration’ and ‘occasionally desperate’. The disruptive part comes from the fact that they simply did not allow Chelmsford to play their usual flowing game. They got their bodies and their sticks in the way, so that even if they didn’t outright win the puck, they did enough to deflect it and stop Chelmsford from setting themselves up. The high concentration was absolutely vital in this game, Chieftains punished every break in concentration, as was shown by their 4th goal when Grant Bartlett was given time and space to pick up a loose puck in the Stars goal and he showed the kind of finishing that I expect from Chelmsford to send the puck flying over Ranby’s shoulder before he had a chance to set himself. But those breaks in concentration were rare last night – the defensive errors and sloppy neutral zone passes that plagued the Stars defence in their opening few games were barely evident last night. The defending was occasionally desperate and Stars really did throw everything they had to try and get in the way. It did cause them to pick up a few minors as a result, especially in the third (and the penalty shot that was brilliantly put away by Cam Bartlett was another case of this) – but for once I am not going to have a go at Stars for their discipline as the penalties were not silly and unnecessary ones and certainly nothing malicious, but more a case of just getting it just slightly wrong or being ill-timed in a bid to stop yet another Chelmsford attack wave.
The fact is that Chelmsford are no mugs. They play beautiful, flowing hockey and have depth through the team which means they don’t have a weaker line. Huska, Hammond and Brears together were occasionally breathtaking – and Huska for me was far more noticeable last night than he was last week and yet he didn’t actually pick up a point. Cameron Bartlett was the biggest stand-out in the team last night though. His two goals were really well taken: the penalty shot was played like a game of cat and mouse with Ranby – he didn’t come at the goal with speed, but instead moved from side to side, forcing Ranby to move with him until he had created a gap to shoot through; his second goal was the opposite – a one-time shot at a really tight angle that was just pure sniper. Given he is only 18, that kid is going to be a real force to be reckoned with and if he has the ambition to play at a higher level I have absolutely no doubt that he will succeed.
For Oxford, I almost don’t want to call out individual players because this was first and foremost an incredibly strong team performance. There is not a player on the Stars team that had less than a magnificent game. But there were a couple who went even beyond that. Ranby in nets was absolutely superb, even with his defence working damn hard to stop the shots coming through, he still faced more than 50 shots and just kept stopping them. Alan Green was also at his best tonight, using his speed and sniping abilities to his advantage and working really hard at both ends of the ice.
I’ll wrap up by saying, absolute credit to Stars for the win – I’ll be honest, they exceeded my expectations of what they were capable of (and that was while missing some key players with Elliott, Whillock, Nick and Joe Oliver and Clarke all unavailable tonight). Chelmsford did not look to be playing much worse than they did when they won 6-1 in the reverse fixture last week. I can’t say if that was a particularly bad performance from them as I don’t see them play often enough to judge it – I still think they are the best team with the strongest line up in the league by a considerable margin. Teams are going to have to come up with a game plan and stick to it in order to beat them and I don’t think it will happen often.
Stars take on Streatham in South London tonight. If they have a live leg muscle left between them I will be surprised! But then Streatham had a hard loss last night, going down 8-2 to Wightlink in the cup while Stars may well still be buzzing, so who knows! If you had offered me a single point out of this weekend, I would have bitten your hand off, so whatever the result tonight I’ll still say ‘incredible job this weekend’. Whatever happens, Stars will remain in at least 4th place and will maintain at least their 50% points total (in fact they are only 5 points shy of last season’s total already).