Match Report: 2017 Ends On A High!
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars finished off the year in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 with a much-needed win, battling hard to overcome Blackburn Hawks 4-3 at the Forum on Saturday night.
Billingham came into the game on a seven-game losing streak, by contrast the Hawks defeat at Sheffield Steeldogs the previous evening was their first in five outings. Both sides had to do without their injured Player/Coaches as Michael Bowman and Steven Duncombe watched on from the benches. Blackburn started well and Stars netminder James Flavell had to be on his game within the first two minutes as he used his blocker to deny Richard Bentham. A minute later and it was the home side’s turn to test the goaltender as an intercepted pass found its way to Artūrs Ozols, the tall defenceman’s fizzer of a shot gloved by Flavell’s opposite number Stuart Ashton. A quick shot from newlywed Chris Sykes on three minutes looked like it had hit the back post and ricocheted back out, but nothing was given. Hawks were shading the play and a Jozef Ištocy effort in the eighth minute was cycled back into the danger zone, Kim Miettinen getting the final touch as the puck went over Flavell’s shoulder to open the scoring. The goal seemed to wake the hosts who went onto the front foot, youngster Ethan Hehir forcing the glove save in the ninth minute. A minute later Deniss Baškatovs set up the incoming Richie Thornton from behind the net, but he put his shot straight at Ashton. Just past the 12-minute marker captain Michael Elder hit the post, then seconds later with the puck still alive in the offensive zone he got another opportunity with a wrist shot out front, but again the shot was straight at Ashton for a routine save. Billingham finally got the goal their pressure deserved in the 15th minute, Sykes with the initial shot that Ashton just couldn’t hold on to and Baškatovs was on hand to help it over the line. Seconds later and the Stars had turned the game on its head, Alex Preston firing one in from the right hand side and Scott Ward with the vital tip past Ashton for 2-1. In much the same way as the Hawks goal had woken the hosts, the double blast shook the visitors into action and they closed out the period with a series of opportunities to equalise, Flavell denying Luke Boothroyd in the 17th minute and then Miettinen sliding one just past the near post with under 60 seconds remaining.
Blackburn kept that momentum going at the start of the second session and had the game tied up after just 70 seconds when Billingham failed to clear from their defensive zone and the Hawks were able to work it to Bentham who was free in front of the net to tuck it under Flavell. The Stars did not let the setback faze them this time and they began to dominate play, Ashton denying Sykes twice in the 22nd and 24th minutes, then Baškatovs from a tight angle a minute later. In the 28th minute Callum Davies had two bites of the cherry at close range, but Ashton eventually smothered the puck to nullify the danger. Another close-range effort from Callum Davies in the 33rd minute ended with his namesake Aaron Davies checking Elder into the net and falling on Ashton, the netminder taking some time to recover his composure. A minute later and Sykes had a chance one-on-one with Ashton, but the goaltender was equal to the challenge and tipped his effort away. Billingham were not going to be denied however and it was Preston with his first senior goal just past the 35-minute marker that moved the home side ahead, getting the better of Bobby Streetly to put the puck high past Ashton’s glove. Within two minutes the Stars had doubled their lead, Sykes the high man coming in from the left wing to slide the puck under Ashton and give the hosts a little breathing room.
Blackburn needed to come out all guns blazing and Aaron Davies forced the pad save from Flavell with just eight seconds gone in the third period. Two minutes later James Neil blasted just wide as the Hawks continued to look for a breakthrough. Billingham didn’t look finished either, Elder going just past the near post and Ozols firing straight at Ashton in the 44th minute. The home fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the Stars season of bad luck had come to haunt them once again as Blackburn narrowed the gap in the 48th minute in fortuitous fashion, Ištocy chopping at a bobbling puck that flew past Flavell. Billingham did not let the nerves set in however, Ozols trying his luck again in the 50th minute with a bullet that Ashton only just hung on to. Neil saw his slap shot kicked away in the 55th minute as the clock got away from the visitors – despite a time out the Hawks were unable to set themselves up to withdraw Ashton and the Stars played out the remaining time comfortably to grab a welcome victory and two points that lifted them to eighth in the table.
Man-of-the-Match for Billingham was Chris Sykes.
Chris Sykes 1+1; Alex Preston 1+1; Scott Ward 1+0; Deniss Baškatovs 1+0; Artūrs Ozols 0+1; Andy Finn 0+1; Richie Thornton 0+1; Benjamin Davison 0+1; Ethan Hehir 0+1
SOG: James Flavell 45 (21 / 12 / 12)
Richard Bentham 1+2; Kim Miettinen 1+0; Jozef Ištocy 1+0; Matt Viney 0+2; James Royds 0+1; Lee Pollitt 0+1
SOG: Stuart Ashton 37 (11 / 14 / 12)
The Stars’ Bench Coach Garry Dowd was delighted to see his side finally show what they are capable of:
“I’ll be honest, I was nervous coming into this game today but the lads showed what they are made of. I thought we were unlucky not to score first but when they took the lead we just gathered our thoughts and dug deep. The second looked like it could have gone either way but Alex [Preston] scored a great goal and I’m really pleased for him. The big change for me this week has been on turnovers - we didn’t give any stupid turnovers away today and that’s been the difference.”
Billingham start 2018 with a critical weekend in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 as they welcome Nottingham Lions to the Forum on Saturday 6th January (face off 5.30pm) before travelling to Telford to take on the Tigers on Sunday 7th January (face off 6pm).
Sheffield Steeldogs 5 Blackburn Hawks 0
Billingham Stars 4 Blackburn Hawks 3
Telford Tigers 4 Solway Sharks 5 (after overtime)
All images courtesy of Tony Burgum Photography.