Bristol Pitbulls 3, Haringey Huskies 4

14th October 2023, National Ice Hockey League – South 2

By Tom Pink

“This is why I love ice hockey!”

There’s a lad that I reckon comes to all the games, home and away, that can’t be much older than about 10. With minutes to go, this was the shout from behind me on Saturday night as Luke Clark made yet another goal denying, game winning save.

He was absolutely spot on of course. That’s exactly why we all keep coming back. Why we’re obsessed with the whole thing. The sheer blood boiling, adrenaline pumping joy of it.

In terms of drama, in terms of team spirit, in terms of single-bloody-mindedness, this has to be absolutely up there. We plunged the depths and scaled the heights. We let them off with a point in September, but this time Haringey ensured Bristol went home with nothing.

Bristol are good and they have a few very good players. But the best of the bunch, the top scorer in the league last year, Olly Shone will be having nightmares about Luke Clark. On so many occasions Luke flashed the leather and snatched away what could have been, what perhaps should have been, a hatful of goals for him.

They’re out quickly and they’re out early. Bristol have the first shot of the game straight from the face-off. Tom Avery tries to go around John Dibble in the Bristol net for the backhand but is caught by the Bristol d-men.

In a mis-match for the ages, John Beldecos does remarkably well to hold up Olly Shone. I’ve seen John play a handful of times now and I don’t think he’s capable of fear or hesitation. He absolutely throws himself about the ice.

Marton Szasz and Stuart Appleby link up but the shot flies over the bar. I think it’s Corey Taylor who plays a great pass across both lines to find Ben Beldecos. His shot whistling wide. Matt France, composed as ever as, deals with a 2-on-1 situation to prevent the shot or pass being made.

Bristol probably take the first 10 minutes, a shot from the right gets tipped just wide. But it’s Haringey who take the lead.

When we look back on this season, this will be the game where we say Conner Smith announced himself in South 2. And what a way to do it. It’s lovely hands from Conner who goes close, dekes and lifts the puck backhand into the roof of the net. Ten minutes gone, 1-0 Haringey. A balm for the soul if ever there was one.

Joe Tearall sees his shot from the right saved. James Hepburn does well to clear the zone after returned Bristol pressure. Jaden Boolkah has a look from the high slot, but his slapshot is elbowed away by Dibble. Haringey grow into it.

But Bristol equalise on the power play. With five minutes remaining in the period, a wrister goes through a crowd and into the top of the net. 1-1.

It could have been worse for Haringey. Péter Tóth makes a fantastic poke check to steal the puck in a dangerous situation, and with 30 seconds remaining Shone goes clean through again right at the end of the period but he puts his shot wide.

Any hopes for a straightforward and stress free game well and truly out the window.

The second period is some of the most frustrating play I’ve seen from the Huskies ever. It reminded me a lot of the 1-0 loss to Guildford on the road last year. Everything looks like hard work, everything is slow and hesitant. When they establish themselves in the offensive zone, they seem to falter or run out of ideas.

Marton Szasz fashioned a great chance but sees his backhander from the slot creep millimetres wide. It nearly breaks for Ben in the offensive zone but he can’t stretch to keep control.

Bristol take the lead halfway through the period. It’s a pass across centre ice that catches Haringey cold. The shot from the blueline is saved, but it spills out and it’s a tap-in at the back post.

The Huskies are living dangerously. Every time Bristol get the puck they’re in and swarming the Haringey net.

It finally tells; 2-1 becomes 3-1 in an almost identical goal. A shot from a face-off in our defensive zone bounces off Luke’s pads and bobbles to the backdoor to be snaffled home by Bristol. A really deflating goal.

It’s compounded by some mind-bendingly frustrating play on our part. On a 2+2 power play we fail to cause Bristol any real dilemmas, and the low block from the Bristol players works perfectly in nullifying any Haringey attack.

The patient Haringey offence didn’t work at all on Saturday night. All of our goals on Saturday come from being direct and driving towards the net.

A frantic, wild end to the period could have seen about five goals as both teams raced end to end. Luke pulls out save after save, from the slot, 1-on-1’s, from the point, any shot from anywhere, you name it he saved it.

It was a miserable period of hockey all told. Lots of work to do in the third…

But this is the Haringey Huskies, and we like to do things our own way. The comeback is started in earnest by Stephen Woodford. After five minutes, Stephen carries the puck across the blueline and heads straight for the goal, his shot from the left wing squeaking in low nearside. Direct, fast, ruthless. 3-2 and game on.

I loved the reaction on the ice from the players. I don’t believe in fate, but as soon as I saw Woody leading those celebrations on the ice, and winding the Haringey fans up too, I was never more certain that they were going to at least draw level, if not take the win.

There’s a flurry of Haringey chances after that and you could sense the away fans latching on to this new energy. When it eventually goes 3-3, in the madness and melee I manage to delete half of my notes. Ever professional.

It’s Conner again, it’s more quick hands, it’s at the crease, it’s the Bristol netminder without a chance in Hell of making a save, it’s parity, it’s 3-3, it’s a glorious glorious goal.

And I think this is the moment we started with. A double-save from Luke channelling his inner Dominik Hašek, first standing up to a 1-on-1 and then, miraculously, unbelievably, saving the follow-up whilst prone on the ice. An unreal save.

With 8 minutes and change left in the game Conner steps up yet again and completes his hattrick. I’ve just written down “wow” so I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine it. It capped, for me, a period where there was such a strong connection between the fans and the team. They spurred us on, we spurred them on, rinse and repeat.

To comeback in that fashion and regain the lead was utterly astounding. I’ve talked in the past about grit and determination and perseverance, but I think this performance is the complete embodiment of that.

Ben steals the puck to relieve some pressure. There’s still, alarmingly, several big Bristol chances with literal seconds on the clock.

Bristol call a timeout with a couple of minutes left and pull their goalie. I had to leave at 9:15 for a taxi… and I was making my way out of the door when the Huskies call their own timeout. With 47 seconds remaining.

It’s confirmed minutes later online; Bristol Pitbulls 2 3 – Haringey Huskies 4. Wow.

What a win on the road. Haringey rode their luck but they made luck too. Bucketfuls of luck.

I don’t know who gets player of the match but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t either Conner or Luke, and for my money it’s Conner.

That was a big game performance from a big game player. A hattrick across a game where you’re 3-1 down is no mean feat.

We’ve successfully navigated our two games against the league champions and come out with maximum points.

This is exactly why we all love ice hockey.

This is why we love these Haringey Huskies. These comeback-king Huskies.

It’s back to the Palace on Saturday, it’s Cardiff, it’s two more points to be won.

Let’s go the 4-from-4 Huskies.