So Oxford City Stars beat Invicta Dynamos for the first time since March 2010 (and it’s even longer since they won in a game that had any meaning, as Invicta had already won the league before that game). So for Oxford City Stars players and fans, this was a huge victory and a massive sign that the team’s fortunes were on the up. More importantly, it was a convincing win with Stars looking like the better team across most of the game.
Invicta looked lack-lustre to my eyes, this was not the team I watched twice back in October, who beat both Streatham and Wightlink in games that had them battling for the entire 60 minutes. Their game at home against Wightlink especially, I remember being really impressed with their speed on the break, their ability to soak up pressure and then bomb down the other end of the rink and create a chance of their own. This just didn’t seem to be present tonight. I don’t know if they took Oxford too lightly, given the history between the teams, or if they are simply so dependent on Ozollapa to score that when he disappeared (apparently with an equipment failure) fairly early on in the game there was no plan B.
Invicta had spells of pressure. In one of their powerplays they were almost camped in the Oxford end and I remember one 5 minute spell at the beginning of the third period when they had a great spell of attacking hockey that had Stars loosing their shape and collapsing in towards net somewhat with some desperate defending. Both those periods were not sustained and it was like they gave up when they didn’t make a breakthrough. Don’t get me wrong – there are some very good players on that team – and some young exciting talent there that could well push for spots at EPL level soon. I thought both Bailey Wootton and Conor Redmond had decent games and were probably two of Invicta’s best players in the game. Wootton’s goal was very well taken – beautifully placed and with a quick release while still skating at speed that left Shannon Long with little chance. Redmond worked hard the whole game and created a lot of the chances that Invicta had. In defence, Zosiak and Strawson both impressed and Strawson had some very good chances from the point that required big saves from Long. But somehow, nothing was clicking for the team and the hard work and energy that was present when I watched them before just seemed to be missing last night.
Oxford on the other hand played in a similar manner to their win against Chelmsford 2 weeks before. It was what I think of as the ‘whole team’ approach with every single line and in fact every single player contributing both offensively and defensively to the result. The biggest difference for me this season is that Simon Anderson has every player working incredibly hard in both directions. The fact that for once we have players to spare in the squad means that the boys know they are fighting for their spot in the team in every game. Missing both your import forward (Ondrej Pekarik) and last season’s top goal scorer (Josh Oliver) due to injuries would normally be big blows for the team but there is clearly more than enough offensive talent to cover them.
Nick Oliver and Joe Oliver both returned to the team after missing a period with ankle injuries and both looked like they had never been away. Nick in particular played better than I remember seeing him play before – he was everywhere on the ice, working in corners, covering defensively and being a real playmaker offensively. I had the honour of being asked to select the MOTM awards last night – and Nick came very close to getting the beers. Ruzicka in defence was again really strong and his goal was an absolute bullet. Darren Elliott is also having a great season this year, and it looks like handing he head coach responsibility to Anderson was a smart move as he is free to concentrate on his own game and it shows.
Shannon Long, I have to really call out though for being exceptional. I have to admit, that I have not rated him that highly in the past. If I am honest I thought that young Connor Ranby was simply a better netminder and that Oxford would do better with a classic 1-2 netminder order instead of their ‘winner stays on’ system they have at the moment. Long absolutely proved to me last night why Simon Anderson rates him equally to Ranby. He was absolutely solid – gone were the silly and ill-judged attempts to leave his crease and leave the net exposed. Instead he simply pulled off some fantastic saves and perhaps most importantly, let very few rebounds drop in front of him so that Invicta didn’t get a second or third bite of the cherry.
Oxford’s home form this season has been exceptional with 13 of their 17 points gained at Oxpens Road so far this season. In a tweet last night I suggested that this may be partly a ‘Shane Moore’ effect. The fact that his only two away games coincide with Oxford’s other 4 points perhaps brings some credence to this theory. That’s not to say he is winning games on his own. Absolutely not, he played well last night – he was calm and collected and his goal was well taken but it wasn’t a stand-out ‘best thing on the ice by a mile’ performance in any respect and he was simply one of a team who were all playing well. Perhaps it is simply that his presence lends a confidence to the rest of the team that they have the ability to beat anyone?