Photo Credits: Stu Widdows (all)
Oxford City Stars put their disappointment from Saturday’s 7-2 loss to Wightlink Raiders behind them as they emerged victorious in an 8-7 thriller over rivals London Raiders. The Stars had to come back from a 4-1 deficit and then again from being 6-4 down before coming out as winners.
This game had a fair bit of hype about it after last seasons clashes at Oxpens Road included the infamous brawl which saw the game abandoned at 9-7 with seven seconds left on the clock and then just 2 weeks later saw a superb 2-2 tie which was a credit to both teams and a great advertisement for NIHL1 hockey. Both teams had strengthened over the summer and had a lot of new faces, with lines still looking to gel and getting used to playing with each other. London had also lost the day before in a 7-4 defeat by Streatham Redskins, so both teams were looking for their first points of the league campaign.
Oxford were quick off the mark, with Darren Elliott scoring a breakaway goal in the first minute after a superb pass from Steve Osman saw him cleanly past the London defence. That goal should have finally put his Chelmsford demons to rest after missing the net in an almost identical situation on the last minute of Oxford’s 2014/15 campaign. London Raiders response was to pile on the pressure and they then scored 4 goals in less than 10 minutes… The first after a defensive error on the London blueline let Liam Chong free to bear down on net – Connor Ranby in the Oxford goal was able to stop the shot but Mason Webster was able to slot home the rebound. Sebastian Downey got their second, again from a rebound as Stars failed to clear the puck. For the third, Chong really showed his class after a brilliant move down the wing saw a turn of speed that allowed him to fly past the Oxford defence before he turned in front of goal and slid the puck under the knee of Ranby. London Import Oravec then made it 4-1 after a pass from Jack Cooper saw him shoot one past Ranby on the glove side and Oxford were looking in trouble with only 15 minutes of the game played.
In season’s past, I have seen Oxford teams give up at this point. However, coach Simon Anderson has clearly put together a team that has a bit more grit this year and Stars clearly decided that they were not done yet. Just 18 seconds after the restart, Elliott received another great pass from Osman and sent a shot flying past Michael Gray in the London Net to bring it back to 4-2 and then 2 minutes later Oxford got it back to 4-3 when a Tom Avery slapshot from the blue line was tipped in by Ben Ealey-Newman. Just after the restart, Shane Moore and Marek Nahlik got into it behind the Stars goal. The fight itself was nothing unusual, until Webster decided to intervene and then Osman went in to stop Webster. Both players were given a game misconduct for ‘3rd man in’ and the original combatants also picked up 2+2 each for the original fight. The period ended with no further action, but fans from both sides were already buzzing with what they had seen so far.
Oxford started the second period quickly again, in a marked improvement to yesterday when they came out after the first period looking flat. Ealey-Newman showed why he is being talked about so much in Oxford as he grabbed his second after demonstrating great hands to slither around a London d-man before letting the puck go to fly past Gray’s shoulder into the net. Stars were back on level terms at 4-4. London didn’t like that though and quickly grabbed two more goals themselves. The first was on a Stars powerplay after Downing received a hooking minor: despite being short-handed, Chong lurked on the Stars blue line and when the puck came out of the London zone he was able to defeat Ranby in a 1-on-0 breakaway. Raider’s 6th goal came after a mistake from Ranby after he came out of his crease to try and stop Chong again but was unable to smother the puck and Nahlik was able to pick up the loose puck and slide it into the empty goal with ease.
Stars quickly came back and within a minute had got the game back to 6-5 when Josh Oliver scored after getting the puck mid-ice from an Andy Cox pass then preceding to dancing round the Raiders’ defence and deking Gray before calmly slotting the puck home. There were no more goals in the second period but it was hardly short of action and had fans from both sides roaring with excitement as the teams took it in turns to have good chances. Ranby who had looked tentative during the first half of the second period, especially after the mistake that cost Stars the Nahlik goal seemed to grow in confidence and was able to block out the abuse from the Raiders’ fans, making several good saves including multiple rebounds. At the other end Gray was also called into action when Andrew Magee, Elliott and Josh Florey combine well and again when Josh Florey got a short handed breakaway when Dax Hedges was called for a high-sticking minor.
The third period started with Oxford on the penalty kill after Josh Oliver’s elbows got him into trouble just before the break. Raiders were unable to capitalise although Gray did need to show off his footwork after Mike Whillock lost an edge and went sliding into him – Gray simply hopped over him though much to the amusement of both sets of fans. Once the penalty was killed off both teams were pushing hard and trying to punish the defensive errors which had plagued both sides and were continuing with almost clockwork regularity. It was Oxford who managed to grab the next goal on the 46-minute mark after a Josh Florey slapshot from the top of the circles defeated Gray. It was a lovely shot, but I suspect Gray will want it back as he had plenty of time to see it and probably should have done better.
At this point game started to feel a bit like a pressure cooker that might explode at any time. There seemed to be a scuffle between players after virtually every whistle. No penalties were called and with both teams giving everything, there was a sense that the game was being slowed down in order for players to get their breath back! Both netminders were also being called into action time after time with spells of pressure from both teams, as the knowledge that the next goal really was crucial at this point. With just under 7 minutes to go, it was Whillock who broke the deadlock after receiving the puck from Joe Edwards and Stars were ahead for the first time since the 6th minute of the game. London were not done yet though and just 30 seconds later Downing, a highly rated 18 year old who had been excellent all game equalised to make it 7-7 after being given space in front of Oxford’s net to pick his spot and bag his second goal of the game.
With just 5 minutes to go, Raiders players were incensed after a Darren Elliott hit on Chong which they felt was less than clean. The ref didn’t have an issue with it though and Moore, who should have known better, tried to call out one of the Raiders players for a fight. When he chose not to react, Moore then made ‘chicken wings’ actions and was rightly given a misconduct for incitement. Moore had been excellent all game for the Stars and this was foolish from him – with the game balanced so tenderly, loosing him for the rest of the game could have been costly for the Stars.
Both teams continued to push for the winner and it was Stars that got their 8th goal. Tom Avery with a speculative wrist shot at goal was probably a bit surprised to see it go in as Gray definitely should have done better, having plenty of time to see it. A delighted Avery certainly didn’t care how or why though! London threw everything to try and get the winner and with just over 2 minutes to go, tension was further heightened when Elliott took a board penalty leaving Oxford to see out all but the last 3 seconds of the period on the penalty kill. London piled on the pressure, also pulling off Gray with 35 seconds to go in order to gain the extra attacker and Stars players were literally throwing themselves in front of the puck. Ranby was certainly very busy during the final spell and had one really excellent save as he palmed away a Chong slapshot. The save was especially impressive as the shot had come through traffic and I am not sure how much time Ranby had to see it.
Oxford just did enough though and saw out the pressure and the period to finish the game as 8-7 winners. The celebrations at the end of the game clearly showed how much it had meant to the team and their delighted fans.
Overall it was a gutsy performance from Oxford – coming back twice to level the game before getting their noses in front. The last few minutes also showed their commitment to keeping ahead as bodies were put on the line by several players in order to protect Ranby in net from an onslaught. London Raiders can also take heart from the game as some of their new players, especially young Seb Downing, showed real promise and the excellent Liam Chong looked dangerous all night and will certainly be a superstar for them this season. Both teams will be looking to cut out the defensive errors which plagued them though – and both teams could do with reminding players to cut out the really silly penalties that don’t need to be taken.
MOTM beers went to Chong for Raiders and Avery for Stars. My pick would actually have been Downing for Raiders and Ealey-Newman for Stars, but I don’t massively disagree with either choice either!
Fans from both sides will be looking forward to the rest of the games between these sides. If the rest of them are as exciting as this one was then supporters will be in for a real treat!
Oxford: Ealey-Newman 2+1, Elliott 2+0, Josh Oliver 1+1, Whillock 1+1, Avery 1+1, Josh Florey 1+0, Osman 0+2, Cox 0+2, Edwards 0+2, Ranby 60 shots (88.3%).
London: . Chong 2+0, Downing 2+0, Oravec 1+0, Nahlik 1+0, Webster 1+0, Chittock 0+1, Cooper 0+1, Davis 0+1. Gray 60 shots (86.7%)