Stars Pip Warriors to Secure Second
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars eventually overcame local rivals Whitley Warriors 3-4 in a tight game on Tyneside to end their National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 regular season schedule by securing second place.
Billingham made the short journey up the A19 boosted by the news that defenseman Tom Keeley would be available after having his match penalty from last Sundayâ€™s game against Sutton downgraded to a misconduct offence. By contrast the Warriors suffered a late blow when captain Jamie Tinsley withdrew after the warm-up period, still suffering the after-effects of a knock picked up against Solway last weekend. After an end-to-end opening four minutes, it was the home side who got the early breakthrough just before the five-minute mark when a slip on the blue line allowed Callum Watson to skate clear and lift the puck over the Starsâ€™ netminder Mark Watsonâ€™s glove. The game continued to seesaw from one end of the ice to the other, however it took the visitors until the ninth minute to trouble Mark Turnbull in the Whitley goal when Callum Davies was almost rewarded for some clever stickwork in front of the net. Watson was kept busy at the other end, a point-blank save in the tenth minute keeping his side within touching distance. Some slick passing led to the equaliser in the 11th minute, Thomas Stuart-Dant finding Chris Sykes from behind the net, Sykes tipping it to Michael Bowman who one-timed his shot past Turnbull to bring the sizeable contingent of travelling fans to their feet. Billingham moved ahead just three minutes later, Keeley circling the Warriors defence before beating Turnbull with a backhand effort. A late flurry of chances for the home side saw Watson deny Whitley sniper Adam Reynolds twice to ensure the Stars retained their lead going into the first interval.
The Warriors pulled themselves level less than two minutes into the second period, Billingham failing to clear the puck which eventually found young defenseman Liam Smedley unmarked on the far post and he made no mistake. The hostsâ€™ momentum was interrupted by a slashing call on Callum Watson in the 25th minute and the Starsâ€™ new-look power play unit did not let the opportunity slip, captain Paul Windridge converting less than half a minute into the penalty to edge his side ahead once more. Despite both sides playing some open, crisp hockey, neither could find a way through some mean defensive work and the session closed with the visitors still holding a slender advantage.
Whitley piled on the pressure in the opening exchanges of the final period, Reynolds again finding himself denied by Watson on numerous occasions. Eventually the Warriors found the back of the net in the 54th minute, a quality strike from stand-in captain DJ Good from just inside the blue line going straight through Watson to even the game up with just over five minutes left to play. Immediately from the face off Whitley went back on the attack, Reynolds trying to go top corner but Watson again equal to the task with a great glove save. The Stars took the puck back up the ice, only to see Michael Elderâ€™s progress halted by a check from behind by Warriorsâ€™ Josh Maddock. James Moss took exception to the challenge and took Maddock to task, both men earning double minor penalties for roughing after Moss had put his man on the ice. Billingham now had the momentum and got the victory that earns them second place in the League with less than 90 seconds remaining, Keeley putting his effort into the top corner with his third attempt after having two successive shots blocked. Whitley called a time out and pulled Turnbull with 15 seconds left but could not make the man advantage count, the Stars almost grabbing an empty net goal when a long range effort slid millimetres wide with just two seconds to play, 3-4 the final score.
Man-of-the-Match for the Stars was Paul Windridge.
DJ Good 1+1; Callum Watson 1+0; Liam Smedley 1+0; Dan Harris 0+1; Paul Matthews 0+1; Kyle Ross 0+1
SOG Mark Turnbull 36 (11 / 11 / 14)
Tom Keeley 2+0; Paul Windridge 1+1; Michael Bowman 1+1; Chris Sykes 0+2; Richie Thornton 0+1; Ben Davison 0+1; Luke Brown 0+1
SOG Mark Watson 45 (13 / 19 / 13)
Billinghamâ€™s General Manager Allen Flavell was pleased to see his side secure second spot to end the regular season on a high:
â€œIt was a fantastic game, end-to-end and it couldâ€™ve gone either way right up to the final period, but we managed to nick it. We played really sharp – our first two lines are playing really well together at the moment, nice crisp passing that got us out of danger. We did switch off from time to time and we gave Whitley a couple of sloppy goals but on balance I think we deserved the win. It puts us in second spot and thatâ€™s what we were looking for.
Both keepers are on top form at the moment and both are playing really well â€“ weâ€™ve had that luxury all season of having two decent keepers to step in for each other. Both have had work commitments so itâ€™s worked out very well for us.
Weâ€™ve got a couple of weeks now to the play offs – next week we’ve got a couple of training sessions midweek plus extra ice time on Saturday, weâ€™re hoping to involve some of our recreational players so we can have a scrimmage with them on the Saturday night to keep us match fit.
I think itâ€™s been a really competitive league this season – Blackburn on paper look like theyâ€™ve ran away with it but theyâ€™ve had some pretty close games. Weâ€™ve had close games but injuries, etc. have worked in their favour this year – when youâ€™re the top club everything just seems to bounce in your favour. We took a couple of injuries when we were leading against them at the Forum and they came back to beat us, but the Spartans and Sutton have taken points off them. Iâ€™m really confident about going to the play-off weekend, itâ€™s going to be a great weekend and anybody could take it.â€
The Stars are now not in action until the play-off competition, which takes place over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of April at Dumfries Ice Bowl. Billingham will face Solway Sharks in their semi-final, Blackburn Hawks will take on the Leagueâ€™s fourth-placed finishers in the other.
National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1:
Whitley Warriors 3 Billingham Stars 4
Photos courtesy of Peter Mallon.