NL play-offs: Raiders 4 Basingstoke 7
PUBLISHED: 19:59 24 March 2018
National League champions Basingstoke showed their clinical edge to leave Raiders facing a mountainous task in the second leg of their play-off semi-final.
Raiders had lost all four league meetings with the Bison, by a combined score of 19-3, but produced a battling display which gave their rivals plenty to think about.
After falling behind in the first minute, they netted either side of the first break to suggest an upset might be on the cards.
But Bison had too much offensive power and are favourites to progress to a final meeting with Swindon or Peterborough, after Raiders forward JJ Pitchley suffered a serious-looking injury in the final minutes.
Marek Nahlik had the first shot of the night, ringing the mask of Dean Skinns, but only 38 seconds had been played when Ivan Antonov found Joshua Smith and he slipped the puck through Michael Gray’s legs.
It was the worst possible start for Raiders, but they recovered well and Brandon Ayliffe tested Skinns, before Olegs Lascenko was called for elbows.
The hosts killed off the penalty and Baldock saw a shot saved after a turnover in Basingstoke’s zone.
Gray then denied Roman Malinik twice at close range and held on to a shot from Ryan Sutton, before Kurt Reynolds was binned for boarding Andy Munroe.
Nahlik and Aaron Connolly joined him in the penalty box on slashing and holding minors, with Jake Sylvester firing a slap shot wide on the Raiders power play.
Jack Cooper saw a wristshot spilled by the uncertain Skinns, who recovered to block Lascenko’s follow-up with his pads.
And it looked like Bison would take a lead to the lockerroom as they lined up for a face-off in their own zone with only two seconds left on the clock.
But Pitchley fired home straight from the restart to level matters and claim his first goal in Romford’s new rink at 19.59, to send the crowd into raptures.
And the second period was barely a minute old when Lascenko put Raiders ahead from close range, to the delight of another packed Sapphire crowd.
Bison sought a quick reply and Tomas Karpov saw a backhand effort drift just wide, before Reynolds thumped a drive into Gray’s chest.
But Sean Barry then forced Skinns into a stick save, before Gray robbed the unmarked Antonov in the low slot and a scuffle developed behind his net.
Pitchley and Lascenko were binned along with Bison’s Dan Scott and Antonov, but the visitors ended up on the power play and they made it count in quick time as a Karpov shot from the right point was deflected in by Grant Rounding.
Gray denied Sutton with a good blocker save on a 2-on-1, but Karpov’s long pass found Dan Davies in acres of space and he shot between the goalie’s pads to put Bison back in front in the 28th minute.
Their joy was shortlived, though, as Raiders hit back with almost a carbon-copy goal as Cooper found Lascenko up ice and he beat Skinns with a backhand shot.
Tom Davis and Ayliffe were next to test Skinns, as the match passed the midway point, with the lively Lascenko going close twice on the same shift.
But Gray had to remain alert as Bison tried to set up a chance in close, with play swinging from end to end, and he turned a shot from Rounding around the post with his stick, then knocked a drive from Sutton into the corner with his blocker.
Bison regained the lead with less than three minutes left in the middle session as captain Aaron Connolly beat Gray at close range and it was suddenly 5-3 less than a minute later as Karpov fired inside the far post.
But Raiders refused to throw in the towel and Nahlik netted their fourth before the break with a hopeful effort from the blue line, with Skinns again looking far from convincing.
Lascenko forced the Bison goalie into a save early in the final period, with a strong shot from the right wing, but the visitors maintained good puck control and Karpov prompted Gray into a smart glove save.
Sutton drove a shot just wide and was then thwarted by Gray from Antonov’s pass, while Connolly’s wraparound attempt was also kept out and Malinik’s wrister was comfortably held.
But Callum Wells saw a slapshot deflected wide at the other end and Nahlik’s blast had Skinns back in the game, after Lascenko’s excellent hip check on Paul Petts in mid-ice.
And Raiders had a great chance to level when Pitchley’s blocked shot fell for Davis, who fired wide of a half-open net with Skinns off balance.
The home side went back on the power play when Davies barged into Gray as he left his net to play the puck, which understandably upset the Raiders players, but Ayliffe was robbed by Skinns at point blank range, after Matt Turner’s clever through the legs pass.
And after Nahlik saw a slapshot kicked out by Skinns, the visitors broke through Karpov, who beat Gray for a mood-killing, unassisted, shorthanded sixth goal.
It got worse for Raiders with just under six minutes remaining when the puck was thrown goalwards from the right point by Stuart Mogg and fell kindly for Malinik to stuff home from close range and make it 7-4.
And Scott’s knee on knee hit on Pitchley, who was left in a lot of pain and had to be stretchered off the ice, rubbed further salt into the wounds inside the last three minutes.
A match penalty was given to Scott for tripping, ruling him out of Sunday’s meeting, but Raiders would not get the full five minutes with the match into its closing stages.
Ayliffe went closest, but Skinns blocked his close-range effort in the final few seconds as the visitors held on to their three-goal advantage.
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