Stars Are League Champions!
Sunday’s match was the first meeting of the Oxford City Stars and the Solent Devils, but it was the most important game of the year for both teams. With the Devils only one point behind the Stars in the league table and with both team’s last two games being a double-header against each other, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. A win for the Stars in regulation time would see them crowned league champions at home, whereas the Devils were hoping to force the decider at the following game, at their home rink in two weeks.
As the game began it was the Devils with the early chances, winning the face-off and then Mitchell Murray with the first shot towards Milan Ronai in the Stars’ net. However the Stars soon got the puck and a flurry of chances resulted, most notably from Michael Whillock and Matthew Lawday. The opponents were not going to let the Stars have it all their own way and momentum shifted back to their team as Alexander Trendall and Richard Facey took turns to try and score. With the home side in control once more Lawday set Joshua Florey up with a pass but Florey missed the net. Joe Edwards was next and his shot bounced off Christian Cole in the Devils’ net; a shot from Darren Elliott did likewise. Just over 7 minutes in the first penalty was handed out and it was for the Devils, with Alexander Cole sitting out for high sticking. Despite chances by Jake Florey and Dominic Hopkins, the Stars were not able to capitalise on the power play. Hopkins and Josh Florey had further shots but Florey was subsequently thrown into the sin bin for slashing and it was the Devils’ turn on the power play; Murray tried his best to put the visitors ahead but the penalty was successfully killed. Another opportunity presented itself for the Stars when they received another penalty, this one on Andrew Campbell for hooking. And with less than 30 seconds left on the penalty they were to be rewarded as Dax Hedges netted a rebound from a Josh Florey shot, with a further assist from Stewart Tait. In the final few minutes of the period Alexander Staples was given a penalty for elbowing and the Devils tried to even up the game, with a shot from Kieran Annis being the closest; Jake Florey was then penalised for holding before the penalty was up and with a 5 on 3 power play the Devils fancied their chances but despite facing several shots, including two from Campbell, Ronai held firm and tossed them all away. As the whistle blew for the end of the period it was the Stars ahead by 1 goal to 0.
The second period was actually the only one where the home side outshot their opponents, and they came out as they meant to go on with Hopkins passing to Elliott and Edwards aiming a long shot towards the Devils’ net. Momentum shifted from one side to the other with chances from Staples for the Stars and Alex Murray for the Devils. Just after 5 minutes in Jake Florey was given a slashing penalty and the Devils stepped up their efforts; Ronai was assisted on one of the saves by Whillock, who dived onto the ice to stop a shot. Just over a minute after the penalty expired without incident Lawday collected his own rebound shot and put the home side 2-0 up, this goal assisted by Edwards. With a tripping penalty on Alexander Cole following, the Stars tried to take advantage of the power play, hoping to build up an even bigger cushion, but none of their shots found the back of the net. No sooner had that penalty finished than another one started, with Mason Wild this time the culprit, for tripping. A Joshua Oliver shot bounded off Christian Cole’s shin pads, and Hopkins also had a go, but the Stars were unable to increase their goal tally further. As his penalty expired Wild raced out of the sin bin and towards the Stars’ net but his shot was saved, much to the disappointment of the away fans. In the last 5 minutes of the game the Devils tried to take advantage of a delayed penalty call, with Christian Cole skating to the bench in favour of the extra skater, but nothing resulted and Josh Florey instead sat out for slashing. Those last few minutes belonged mostly to the opposing side as Wild, Ben Lock, Mitchell Murray and Campbell all took turns with the puck but in the last few seconds it was Staples for the Stars who took a shot towards goal; his shot missed.
The third period was a tense affair, the Devils knowing that they had to get back into the game to be in with any chance of forcing the decider at their home rink. But with a tripping penalty on Trendall in the first 90 seconds of the period, they were at a disadvantage. They tried to force a short-handed goal, with scrapping in front of the Stars’ net. Once the Stars got the puck Hopkins passed to Jake Florey but the shot missed the net. The Devils tried once again but were thwarted by the Stars, with chances resulting for Whillock and Hopkins, the latter caught by Christian Cole in his glove. Whillock tried to set Tait up for a pass right in front of the Devils’ net, but Tait was not in the right place. Almost halfway into the period Edwards made it three goals in three periods with an assist from Josh Florey; this one coming just after a face-off. A subsequent penalty for Alexander Cole for holding gave the Stars another chance but Staples was the only player with a real chance, and the Devils then took the puck, seeing their title chances slipping away. After shots from Facey and Alex Murray, Edwards’ hooking penalty came at a great time for the visitors and they had several shots on goal but were once again unsuccessful. Staples had a shot which hit the side of the opponents’ net, but it was the Devils who had most of the chances in the remaining few minutes. With less than 6 minutes to play in the game the Stars called a time-out, sensing that the Devils were stepping up their efforts. And the away fans were finally rewarded as an Alexander Cole shot finally found its way past Ronai, with an assist from Mark Pitts. Realising that a Devils win was now unlikely, the fans celebrated the goal as if it was the game-winning goal. An immediate time-out was called by the Devils with less than 3 minutes to go. Whillock for the Stars and Facey for the Devils both had chances after that but as the seconds ticked down the Devils took out their frustrations, with four penalties being handed out to them in the last minute of the game- three of those on Mitchell Murray, who was given 2+10 for roughing and personal misconduct and then a match penalty when he decided to strongly object to his punishment. A holding penalty was also given on Facey with 8 seconds left in the game. The penalties were of no consequence as the final whistle blew and the Stars’ and their fans celebrated their win and the NIHL 2 South title victory with medals, the trophy and champagne on the ice, meaning that the result of the final game in two weeks’ time will be inconsequential to the Stars.
Final score: Stars 3 Devils 1.