NIHL N1 2017 Playoff Preview
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars’ season culminates this weekend with the National Ice Hockey League (N) Division 1 play-off competition at IceSheffield, the Stars taking on Blackburn Hawks tomorrow afternoon for the right to play the winners of the later Solway Sharks v Solihull Barons tie in Sunday's Grand Final.
Tomorrow’s semi-final opponents Blackburn have come up on the rails in the final weeks of the regular season to snatch not just a playoff spot but an unlikely third place finish. Languishing towards the lower end of the table as late as mid-February, the Hawks finally found some form and pushed their way up the League helped in no small way by Slovakian import Jozef Ištocy who joined the club over the festive break. The two sides’ head-to-head record is in the Stars favour thus far with five wins for the Teessiders out of eight games played, however only one of those matches featured Ištocy – a 5-3 victory for Blackburn at the Forum last month. Captain Ollie Lomax returned from a ten-match ban last weekend so the Lancashire outfit should have everyone eligible available for tomorrow afternoon’s encounter.
The free weekend between the end of the regular season and the play-offs has enabled Billingham to rest up and shake off some lingering niggles and knocks, meaning the Stars will be at full strength going into tomorrow’s game. Having secured second place comfortably, Billingham are confident of challenging for the playoff trophy they last won five years ago. There is no doubting their ability to find the net as the League’s top scorers, with Chris Sykes and Dennis Boström both making the top five point scorers list. A win on the larger Sheffield ice pad against Sutton Sting three weeks ago gave the team an additional boost as the Stars prepare to face old rivals Blackburn for the ninth time this season.
The winner of the Stars/Hawks semi-final will take on the victor in the later Sharks/Barons tussle in Sunday's final. Solway took over at the top of the table after just two games and ended up coasting to the title, finishing 12 points ahead of the Stars. They cannot take anyone lightly however and Solihull have proved tough nuts to crack. Strong offensively, the Barons will need their forwards to be at their very best to break down the meanest defence in the League and upset the favourites as the Sharks attempt to make it a League/Cup/Playoff treble.
Billingham’s Director of Coaching Terry Ward is confident that his side can bring the playoff crown back to Teesside on Sunday evening:
“This is our last big push. We are focused and ready to take on the Hawks – the lads are fired up, they want that trophy and Blackburn are standing in our way of making the final. We’ve got the talent and the team to do it, but we know it will be so hard, every team is capable of winning on any given day. It may come down to who wants it more, and if that’s the case no one wants it more than we do. The Hawks have given us tough games each and every time we’ve played, they’ve been on a roll of late and maybe they think the luck is with them. It will be a classic match I’m sure.
We will concern ourselves with the final only when we have to. Solway have been the team to beat all season long but it would be wrong to write Solihull off. Both games really could go either way which is great for the fans and should make for a fantastic weekend of hockey.”
Billingham travel to IceSheffield for the end-of-season play-off showdown tomorrow afternoon, their semi-final against Blackburn Hawks faces off at 1.30pm.
NIHL(N)1 Playoff Competition:
Semi-Final 1: Billingham Stars v Blackburn Hawks, 1.30pm Saturday
Semi-Final 2: Solway Sharks v Solihull Barons, 7.30pm Saturday
Grand Final: 4.30pm Sunday (all games played at IceSheffield)
NIHL(N)2 Playoff Competition:
Semi-Final 1: Widnes Wild v Altrincham Aces, 10.30am Saturday
Semi-Final 2: Blackburn Eagles v Sheffield Senators, 4.30pm Saturday
Grand Final: 1.30pm Sunday (all games played at IceSheffield)
Images: 2012 playoffs - IceHockeyMedia / Blackburn - Linda Crabtree / Dragons - Craig Morgan