â€˜Biggest Weekendâ€™ for Stars
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars face possibly the toughest weekend of their National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 season so far, with a trip to reigning champions Blackburn Hawks on Saturday afternoon followed by the visit of much-improved Solway Sharks to the Forum on Sunday evening.
Once again the Hawks are marching to the League title, sitting seven points clear of nearest rivals Whitley Warriors. Their progress was halted momentarily last Saturday at Solway when Blackburn went down to only their second defeat of the season, the resurgent Sharks coming out 5-3 winners. On home ice however, the Hawks have proved too strong for every visiting side and they remain unbeaten with ten wins from ten games played and 71 goals scored. Billinghamâ€™s previous trip over the Pennines last month saw the Stars push the title favourites all the way before a string of injuries and a poor five-minute spell in the final period put paid to their challenge, Blackburn emerging 5-2 victors.
A completely different Solway Sharks visit the Forum on Sunday to the side that lost 5-3 on Teesside in November. A dreadful start to the season means the Dumfries-based outfit have much ground to make up on the playoff contenders but they appear to have turned the corner, the scalp of the Hawks evidence of the turnaround in the Scotsâ€™ fortunes. Head Coach Martin Grubb has culled his side of players who he felt were not up to the task, adding James Wallace to his defence and welcoming back free scoring Martin Cingel from a long injury layoff as their playoff push gains real momentum.
Weekends do not get much tougher than this for the Stars, but they will be buoyed by their previous performances against both sides. Billingham matched the Hawks for long periods in Lancashire last month and have won all three of their encounters with the Sharks thus far. The squad is still dogged by injuries however, with netminder James Flavell set to miss out once more. Player-Coach Michael Bowman is close to a return and has resumed training but remains a doubt as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury sustained during the Stars last visit to Blackburn. Captain Paul Windridge is still some weeks away from getting back on the ice, whilst Jamie Pattison could miss the rest of the season.
Billinghamâ€™s Director of Coaching Terry Ward was bullish ahead of the Stars biggest weekend of the season so far:
â€œWe are going all-out for four points this weekend â€“ that has to be the aim. Yes the two games are going to be very, very tough for the lads but I am confident we can win both. We have key players missing but we also have players who are capable of stepping up and doing the job â€“ I have every faith in the side we will put out and we will be working our hardest to put those points on the board. Nothing is certain in this League, we will have a positive attitude and we know what we need to do.â€
Billingham make the trip over the Pennines on Saturday afternoon to take on Blackburn Hawks in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1, face off 5.45pm. They then return to the Forum for Sunday eveningâ€™s clash with Solway Sharks, face off 6.30pm. Tickets can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm on game night priced at Â£10 adults, Â£6 concessions, Â£30 family [2+2].
Sutton Sting v Sheffield Senators, 4.30pm Saturday
Blackburn Hawks v Billingham Stars, 5.45pm Saturday
Solway Sharks v Whitley Warriors, 7pm Saturday
Sheffield Spartans v Solihull Barons, 7.30pm Saturday
Sheffield Senators v Sutton Sting, 1.45pm Sunday
Whitley Warriors v Sheffield Spartans, 5pm Sunday
Solihull Barons v Blackburn Hawks, 6pm Sunday
Billingham Stars v Solway Sharks, 6.30pm Sunday
All images courtesy of Linda Crabtree