Bring on the Hawksâ€¦
The Ultimate Windows Billingham Stars booked their second consecutive NIHL One (N) play-off final on Sunday night when they knocked out Sutton Sting in an nine goal thriller at Billingham Forum Ice Arena.
Holding a slender one goal advantage from the away leg Stars Coach Simon Leach promised his side would be going all out to finish the job started last week at Ice Sheffield.
Suttons captain James Goodman was thrown out after only 38 seconds when a deliberate high stick to the face of Stars Dave Manning resulted in Manning leaving the game temporarily for treatment.
An intense first period saw 8 goals scored in a manic 6 minutes of end to end action.
Sutton cancelled Billinghamâ€™s aggregate one goal lead when Ryan Johnson forced the visitors ahead just before the eighth minute, however Stars response was instant as Stephen Wallace lifted it over the pad of Dmitra Zimozdra eleven seconds after play resumed.
Thirty seconds later James Moss hit the sweet spot to move the Stars ahead, under two minutes later a long Richie Thornton effort bobbled under the Sting keeper to put the Stars 3-1 ahead.
Sting dug deep and Jamie Spurr cut the Stars lead thirty seconds later, with Stars Jamie Pattison sitting out a 2 minute call Stings Simon Offord netted on a delayed penalty to level the game.
A well executed shorthanded breakaway goal from Stars Cal Davies moved the home side ahead; again Suttonâ€™s response was tendered less than a minute later as Shaun Ashton scored unassisted to tie the game.
A scorching period of ice hockey closed at four goals each as the two sides battled for dominance.
A scoreless second saw both keepers pull of some stunning stops Stars Stephen Wallace collected a harsh 2 + 2 for roughing after a minor dust up with Neal Hardy.
The second closed all even at four goals each.
Stars started the third pushing the puck deep into the Sutton zone and some intense pressure saw the outshoot the Sting 17 shots to 7. Stars breakthrough came with less than 10 minutes left to play when Paul Windridge hit the game winning goal unassisted.
Sutton pushed hard as the clock counted down but some good possession play from the Stars denied the Sting.
Into the last 30 seconds of play Sting pulled their goalie to gain an outfield advantage, then with 20 seconds to play a high stick call against Billinghamâ€™s Karl Culley gave the Sting a 5 on 3 advantage, Stars defended well and cleared their zone as the clock counted down to a play-off final slot against Blackburn Hawks.
Stars coach Simon Leach admitted after the game that the first period was one of a kind;
â€œOur game plan was to keep it tight, we didnâ€™t want to sit back and we wanted to put them under pressure and I thought we did that, it was one of the craziest periods of hockey I have ever been involved inâ€.
â€œI certainly wasnâ€™t happy with the goals that we gave up, but at the other end we scored some really good goals, but the goals we gave up were not acceptable, I made that plain to the boys in the first breakâ€.
â€œWhen you are playing play-off hockey you have to make sure that you look after your own end first, we have the talent to score goals, but you canâ€™t give goals up in the, manner we did in the first periodâ€.
â€œWe tightened things up for the second two periods, we were more disciplined and we grew as the game went on, the fifth goal knocked the wind out of their sails a little bitâ€.
Simon felt that tonightâ€™s game was a great advert for the league;
â€œThatâ€™s the excitement of the play-offs, the tempo of the game is usually a lot higher and the games are a lot more physical, over the two games both sides have shown thatâ€.
â€œI give credit to both teams, Sutton certainly came to play tonight, and it took us a bit off time to settle down and do the things that have made us successful we were into the game after thatâ€.
Simon was reluctant to single out anyones performance but praised goalie Mark Watson for his play-off performance.
â€œMark has had a fantastic series, we lost James Flavell earlier in the season and Mark stepped up to the plate, he got limited ice time last season but he has done a fantastic job as a number one goalie, he has matured so much, we have confidence in him, he has stood up in some big games this year, including the game against Solway. I am left with a tough decision to make for the final, obviously Richard Griffiths is chomping at the bit as well, itâ€™s not the nicest part of coaching, having to choose, and having to leave someone out, but thatâ€™s what I am here for, we have two good goaliesâ€.
Simon is aware a second consecutive play-off final against Blackburn will be a tough prospect;
â€œWe wonâ€™t be able to slip up defensively because on their day Blackburn are a very offensive team and we canâ€™t afford to give up the amount of chances we did in the first period tonightâ€.
â€œI look at my team and as long as my team go out and work as hard as they are asked to I am happyâ€.
â€œWe have a very good team in that dressing room, so I just rely on our boys to do their job and I think everything else takes care of itself, we donâ€™t take things for granted, we train hard and play hardâ€.
â€œUnfortunately we wonâ€™t have Dave Manning for the finals, he has to return to Australia, itâ€™s really sad for him, he came in just after Christmas and played a part in getting us to where we are now, and itâ€™s a real shame that he will miss the finalâ€.
Dates for the play-off finals have been confirmed Billingham will travel to Blackburn on Sat 4th May with the return leg at Billingham on Sun 5th May.