Hawks take Honours
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars failed at the final hurdle as they lost their National Ice Hockey League (N) One play-off title in front of a capacity crowd at Billingham Forum on Sunday evening, going down 9-5 on aggregate to Blackburn Hawks.
In a repeat of last yearâ€™s play-off final, Billingham and Blackburn battled it out over two legs this weekend, the Stars seeking to retain their crown whilst the Hawks went in search of a first-ever trophy in their 23-year history. A sizeable contingent of Teessiders made the journey to Lancashire on Saturday evening for the first leg, and a cut-price admission policy meant that the home support was large and noisy. Billingham travelled missing 3 defencemen, and the loss of Australian import Dave Manning meant that coach Simon Leach was forced to tinker with his lines to counteract the full-strength Hawks threat.
The first period was fast-paced and end-to-end. Both sides put a lot of energy and effort into the period without creating any clear-cut chances, the best opportunity falling to Blackburn in the 12th minute to force a fine save from the Stars netminder Mark Watson. Billingham gifted the Hawks a late powerplay opportunity with a silly bench minor penalty but the home side were unable to convert and the session ended goalless.
The middle period began with a mad minute that cost the visitors two goals and a man. Blackburn opened the scoring in the 22nd minute when Matt Viney set up Aaron Davies who fired under Watsonâ€™s pads. The Hawks second followed just 30 seconds later, Sam Dunford this time the man on the spot to double his sideâ€™s lead. Things looked increasingly bleak for Billingham when Callum Davies was sent for an early shower literally seconds later, an accidental high stick catching the face of Blackburn import Ivo Dimitrijevs and drawing blood for an automatic match penalty. The Stars were able to play off the resulting 5-minute major penalty without incident however, and almost scored themselves whilst short-handed when a breakaway should have been finished by Michael Bowman. Despite increasing pressure from Billingham, the home side held on for a 2-0 period lead.
Early in the final period a slashing minor penalty incurred by the Hawksâ€™ Craig Rogers looked to be played off until Stephen Wallace pulled one back for the visitors with just 5 seconds remaining on the penalty in the 43rd minute. Just over a minute later and the travelling Teesside support were on their feet as Adam Robinson levelled the game at 2-2. Blackburn were in no mood to crumble however and in the 46th minute they nosed themselves back in front when Myles Dacres pounced on a rebound off the post. From then on both teams pressed hard, but with the second leg in mind the shutters went up and the match closed with the Hawks holding a 3-2 advantage.
After the game Callum Daviesâ€™ match penalty was downgraded to a game penalty as Dimitrijevs had returned to the game following treatment, meaning Davies was eligible to play in the following nightâ€™s second leg.
Man of the match for the Stars was Adam Robinson.
Billingham had every reason to feel confident going into Sundayâ€™s second leg â€“ Blackburn had taken a one-goal advantage in last yearâ€™s final and failed to convert it into a win. Both sides were at full strength as Jamie Pattison and Marty Davies returned to bolster the Stars defence, and the Forum saw itâ€™s first full house of the season as a large number of travelling Hawks fans swelled the crowd to capacity with supporters queuing fully 2 hours before face off.
Blackburn set their stall out from the first drop of the puck, with a fast, aggressive style that Billingham found hard to deal with. However the Stars started the brighter of the two teams and peppered the Hawks net in the early exchanges, but found netminder Daniel Brittle in fine form. Against the run of play, Blackburn opened their account in the 4th minute when captain Chris Arnone broke away and shot low to beat Mark Watson in the Billingham net having only just returned to the ice following a 2-minute spell in the sinbin for slashing. The goal rattled the Teessiders and the visitors capitalised by making it two less than a minute later when Matt Viney put the puck away following a goalmouth scramble. Billingham piled on the pressure but were found wanting in front of goal, as time and again Brittle denied the hosts. Whilst the hosts continued to be ineffective against an outstanding netminder, the Hawks were clinical on the breakaway, and David Meikle made it three in the 16th minute to take the Lancashire outfit 4 clear of the Stars on aggregate. Billingham gave hope to the home support with less than two minutes left on the period when Adam Robinson reduced the deficit with a powerplay goal, but went into the break 3-1 down on the night and with a mountain to climb.
The Stars continued to dominate possession in the second session, but could not put away their chances. Blackburn were able to absorb everything that Billingham threw at them with relative ease, and looked dangerous whenever a counterattacking opportunity came their way. The Hawks eventually put the result beyond doubt when another breakaway saw Aaron Davies fire straight through Watson with exactly 34 minutes played to bring the travelling support to their feet.
With only pride left to play for, the Stars were left shellshocked as Blackburn started the final period in blistering fashion. Sam Dunford made it five for the visitors in the 42nd minute, then David Meikle gave the scoreline a one-sided look when he grabbed his second of the evening to make it 6-1 in the 49th minute. With the trophy well and truly out of reach, Billingham managed to pull a couple back in the closing minutes through James Udell and captain Paul Windridge, but the night belonged to Blackburn and the clock counted down to a 6-3 win for the visitors, 9-5 the aggregate score. The hooter went to wild celebrations from the Hawks fans and players, as Blackburn secured their first ever trophy since their inception 23 years ago.
Man of the match for the Stars was Scott Ward.
Man of the Match for the Hawks Danny Brittle.
Speaking after the second leg, Billingham coach Simon Leach accepted full responsibility for his sideâ€™s failure to retain their play-off title:
â€œBlackburn were the better team over the two legs, we gave up too much at their place then at home we quickly found ourselves with a mountain to climb in the first period. Our target at the start of the second was to get two goals back then try and shut the back door â€“ it didnâ€™t happen and we conceded a third. We tried a few changes, tried moving players around a little bit and it didnâ€™t work. Danny Brittle had a great game, he played really well: we got plenty of shots on him, but it just wasnâ€™t our night tonight, itâ€™s so disappointing to lose a play-off final in your own rink.
I hold my hands up and take responsibility for the way the team performed tonight, I am so disappointed for the lads and for the fans that have stuck by us throughout the season, its gut wrenching. We got beat by a better team tonight who worked harder than us for long periods of the game, they took their chances and we didnâ€™t. I apologise to the fans for the loss, but I wonâ€™t criticise the players for their commitment and effort, on the night we were not good enough.â€
The National Ice Hockey League (N) One season is now closed, with the 2013-2014 campaign due to begin in September. Billingham Stars annual presentation evening will be held on Friday 10th May at The Swan in Billingham, tickets priced at Â£20. Anyone interested in attending should contact Team Manager Allen Flavell directly, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Report : Carol Ramsden.