Wildcats' season is over after Basingstoke heartbreak
SWINDON'S overtime curse struck again last night as they were dumped out of the EPL play-off quarter-finals following a nerve-jangling second leg at Basingstoke.
The Wildcats, who had already lost 11 times out of 12 in overtime this season, made it an unwanted dozen defeats when Joe Greener struck during a four-on-three powerplay, to secure a 5-4 aggregate win for the league runners-up.
It was the bitterest of pills to swallow for Swindon, whose season has been dogged by hard-luck stories, and left them contemplating a hockey-less upcoming weekend instead of a trip to Coventry SkyDome for the play-off semi-finals.
Ryan Aldridge's men held the Bison to a 3-3 draw at the Link Centre on Saturday, a game in which they outshot their opponents and quite conceivably could have won, with skipper Aaron Nell's hat-trick setting the Wiltshire side up well for the trip east yesterday.
As a spectacle, last night delivered everything supporters of both sides could have wanted.
Swindon, hamstrung by the absence of Great Britain Under 18 forwards Ollie Betteridge and Floyd Taylor, stood firm in a frenetic opening at Planet Ice.
Netminder Dean Skinns was a busy man early on and the Bison inched ahead at 14.51 when Doug Sheppard got round the back of Paul Swindlehurst and pulled into the path of Joe Rand, who scrambled home at the second attempt.
It did not stay that way for long. Less than three minutes into period two, Shane Moore released Sam Bullas down the left and the combative forward bulldozed towards the near post before forcing the puck past Stevie Lyle (22.23).
Nell and Henri Sandvik both had chances on the powerplay but Basingstoke were also a goal threat and Skinns was grateful when the puck bounced out off the pipes shortly after.
Later, the third period was characterised by a relentless tension that only increased with every passing second.
Skinns distinguished himself with several sublime saves while on the deck but while the action was end-to-end, for the most part, significant opportunities were rare.
The Swindon netminder was nearly caught out on the angle by ex-Wildcats man Jaroslav Cesky but he redeemed himself with a smart stop from Rand.
Aldridge might have won it for Wildcats in the closing minutes, when after being set up by a brilliant rink-length saucer pass from Moore, he closed in on Lyle, but the Bison netminder produced a terrific block on the angle to keep the shot out.
Four seconds from the end of regulation time, the game-changer arrived. The visitors were penalised for having too many men and Basingstoke therefore started overtime with a four-on-three advantage.
Some 43 seconds into the added period, the Bison struck. Cesky smashed a slapshot that rebounded off the iron - possibly inside the goal - and the puck fell straight to the feet of Greener, who bundled in at the post.
While Basingstoke's players celebrated wildly, the Wildcats could only shake their heads at the toughest of late losses, with Skinns in particular inconsolable out on the ice.
On Saturday at the Link Centre, the two teams played out an encounter that was brutal and bruising from the first second to the last.
Basingstoke took the lead against the run of play at 14.41, with Tony Redmond picking out Greener and he beat his man before lashing past Skinns.
Wildcats' deadly duo of Nell and Jonas Hoog were kept quiet during the first period, but the Bison could not carry that into the second.
Less than five minutes after the restart, Jan Melichar found Hoog who picked out Nell, and the Wildcats skipper flew past Alex Symonds before beating Lyle at his near post (24.35).
What followed shortly after was a frantic spell of three goals in three minutes, the first two of those in the visitors' favour.
Skinns saved well from Sheppard's initial shot but Cesky was in just the right place to sweep home the rebound and restore the Bison lead (30.55).
Nell went straight up the other end and agonisingly pinged off the pipes, and the hosts were made to regret that marginal miscalculation moments later, as Cesky snatched his second with a five-hole finish (31.49).
The home side were given a helping hand when Rand was called for hooking, and from the resulting powerplay, they pulled one back.
Joe Miller slid towards Nell - literally - and the Swindon man exquisitely danced round the grounded man before lasering through a crowd of players and in off the pipes (33.17).
The action continued to be end-to-end in the third period but Basingstoke seemed quite content to take a one-goal victory with them to Hampshire.
Nell fired a warning when he clattered the pipes for the second time that night, but minutes later he had his hat-trick.
Greener was binned for slashing and Swindon patiently worked the puck from player to player, with Aldridge and Hoog involved in the move that saw Nell stab in his and Wildcats' third at the far post (54.49).
That was how it stayed until the final buzzer, with few genuine opportunities being created in the closing stages.
Meanwhile, Swindon's Floyd Taylor skippered Great Britain Under 18s to victory in their first game of the World Championships (Division 2A) in Estonia yesterday.
GB claimed a thumping 7-3 win over the tournament hosts with Taylor's fellow Wildcats forward Betteridge clocking up two assists.