Playoff Weekend Report: Stars Fall Short In Final
ULTIMATE WINDOWS sponsored Billingham Stars came up just short in the National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 playoff final at IceSheffield on Sunday, eventually going down 3-1 to treble-winners Solway Sharks.
Saturday's semi-final saw the Stars matched up against an in-form Blackburn Hawks who had come from the relegation zone to snatch third place in the League in the final month of the season. Both sides boasted full-strength sides and a close game was anticipated. Billingham had the better of the opening exchanges, pinning the Hawks into their own zone and troubling netminder Stuart Ashton on a number of occasions within the first minute. Blackburn's cause was not helped when Player Coach Steven Duncombe took a delay the game penalty after just 66 seconds but the Stars were unable to capitalise, the best chance falling to Chris Sykes on the two-minute mark when he was set up at the near post by James Moss but he tapped his effort just wide. The penalty kill seemed to wake the Hawks up and they began to exert some control, Billingham netminder James Flavell wise to a Richard Bentham shot coming in from the point in the fifth minute. The Stars struggled to cope with the Lancashire outfit's change of gear and fell behind just before the ten-minute mark when they failed to clear their lines, no one picking up the lurking Jozef Ištocy who fired coolly past Flavell. Billingham came back at their old rivals almost immediately, Daniel Palmebjörk collecting the puck on his own blue line and taking it into the danger zone before forcing the kick save from Ashton. In the 12th minute Ashton was responsible for keeping his side ahead with reaction saves from Scott Ward and Dennis Boström. A minute later Palmebjörk took a holding penalty and the action switched back to the other end, this time it was Flavell at the centre of everything as he kept his side from falling further behind, catching a Duncombe blast from the blue line high then following up with a string of point-blank saves as Blackburn ramped up the pressure. Towards the end of the period Boström had a half-chance to level the game but his 18th minute shot was high and wide.
After a mediocre first twenty, the Stars needed to bring more to the table and they started in the best possible fashion, Jack Watkins dispossessing the last defenceman in some style in the 21st minute and shooting high past Ashton's glove to square the game. Billingham with the bit between their teeth, they moved ahead two minutes later when Sykes held off his man to get the shot away. Ashton made an initial save but Palmebjörk was on hand to knock the rebound under the prone keeper. The Stars were now well in command, but had their resolve tested when a scuffle broke out between Billingham's Luke Brown and Hawks' captain Ollie Lomax, the Stars forward handed a five-minute major and an early shower for hitting his man when down on the ice. Blackburn looked to take full advantage of the extra man but found Billingham tough to break down and looking dangerous on the break. In the 29th minute Sykes collected the puck in the neutral zone and went high, Ashton gloving above his head. From the resulting face off Palmebjörk found the back of the net in double-quick time to give the Stars a two-goal cushion. A contentious charging call against Michael Elder gave the Hawks two-man advantage and this time they made it count, Aaron Davies firing through a crowd to reduce the deficit. Finally back at full strength, Billingham went on the offensive once more, Michael Bowman sliding the puck just past the near post on the backhand in the 32nd minute. Seconds later it was Blackburn’s turn to fall foul of the referee as top scorer Richard Bentham incurred a two plus ten minute penalty for a cross check to Boström’s head. The Stars set themselves up well on the power play, Palmebjörk going close in the 33rd minute, before they restored their advantage with seconds remaining on the penalty, Sykes drifting in unchallenged and shooting past Ashton on his stick side. The Hawks has the chance to bring it back to a one-goal game in the 38th minute when Davies found himself one-on-one with Flavell, but the Billingham keeper tracked the puck well and denied the retiring Blackburn forward low down. The period closed with two opportunities for the Stars to extend their lead, Moss stripping the defenceman of the puck and skating in front of Ashton but the netminder did enough to prevent a gorgeous goal. Then a minute before the buzzer Sykes released Watkins but he fanned on the shot, Billingham heading into the dressing rooms 4-2 up.
The Stars did not let up in the early stages of the final session, Palmebjörk hitting the post in the 44th minute. Seconds later Cal Davies’ attempted wraparound found Ashton’s chest, but the netminder’s relief was short-lived as Billingham’s very next attack saw Elder collect the puck and go high to beat Ashton’s flailing glove and give the Stars some breathing space. With a place in the final slipping away, Blackburn had to go for it and got a break when Tom Parkinson’s 49th minute wrist shot from the right face off circle sailed past Flavell’s outstretched glove and into the top corner to give the Hawks travelling contingent hope. From the restart Ištocy forced a kick save but Billingham kept their composure and re-established their three-goal lead just past the 50-minute mark when Elder broke clear with Moss alongside him, Elder electing to shoot instead of making the pass, his low shot beating Ashton into the bottom corner. The Stars looked in control and it was no surprise when Sykes made it seven in the 53rd minute, his one-time effort into the bottom corner coming after Palmebjörk had managed to poke it across the net under pressure and from the ice. Blackburn could find no response, their only remaining chances coming as the clock ticked towards the buzzer but neither Mikko Sierman nor Davies could find a way past Flavell and the match ended with a comfortable 7-3 victory for Billingham and a place in the following day’s final.
Man-of-the-Match for Billingham was Daniel Palmebjork.
Chris Sykes 2+2; Daniel Palmebjörk 2+1; Michael Elder 2+0; Jack Watkins 1+2; Callum Davies 0+2; Tom Keeley 0+2; James Moss 0+1; Andy Finn 0+1; Ben Davison 0+1
SOG: James Flavell 41 (12 / 18 / 11)
Aaron Davies 1+0; Jozef Ištocy 1+0; Tom Parkinson 1+0; James Royds 0+1; Richard Bentham 0+1; James Riddoch 0+1; Steven Duncombe 0+1; Bobby Streetly 0+1
SOG: Stuart Ashton 41 (11 / 15 / 15)
Sunday’s final saw the Stars take on League and Cup champions Solway Sharks who had defeated Solihull Barons 3-2 in the second semi-final, the Scots needing overtime to get past the stubborn Midlanders. Billingham had to survive an early onslaught as the Sharks looked to assert some authority, Marc Fowley the first to test Flavell with less than a minute played. It took the Stars until the sixth minute to force their way out of their defensive zone, Moss with a backhand effort that Solway netminder Calum Hepburn dealt with comfortably. Still the Sharks kept coming, with three chances in the eighth and ninth minutes as Struan Tonnar, Scott Henderson and Steven Moore all went close. Billingham began to come back into things in the second half of the period, Palmebjörk stealing the puck in the 13th minute but his flick was straight at Hepburn. Two minutes later a point shot from captain Richie Thornton almost fooled Hepburn, Solway’s counterattack saw Joe Coulter test Flavell seconds later but the busy goaltender gathered at his skate. The period ended on a sour note as Stuart Andrews clashed with Boström after the buzzer, the two men incurring roughing penalties.
After a stalemate first session, Solway got off to the best possible start as a lovely pass from Kim Miettinen found Scott Henderson who fired straight through Flavell for the opener in the 21st minute. Billingham almost had the perfect response when Bowman hit the bar just 20 seconds later. Play more open than the first, a Flavell windmill save robbed Coulter in the 22nd minute then a kick save from Hepburn denied Watkins a minute later. In the 25th minute Moss set up Davies for the one timer but the well-marshalled Sharks defence did enough to put him off. Moss was involved again in the 29th minute, his low shot scooped up by Hepburn. Both netminders putting in stellar performances, Duncan Speirs was next to be left frustrated as Flavell stretched to pluck his effort out of the air just past the halfway mark. In the 36th minute Palmebjörk surged in from the left wing and shot low but again Hepburn was equal to the challenge and scooped the puck from the floor. A rare Solway defensive error in the last minute saw Palmebjörk find Watkins alone in front of the net, but his attempt to beat Hepburn into the bottom corner was foiled by the Sharks netminder.
With just 20 minutes of the season to go, both sides came out looking hungry for the win. In the 44th minute Boström found Elder from behind the net, his deflected shot going high and almost falling behind Hepburn. In the 48th minute the teams swapped chances as first Tonnar forced the kick save, then at the other end Palmebjörk squared to Sykes but he saw his effort slide just wide of the near post. The Stars were handed a power play in the 48th minute as Coulter was called for hooking and they sent the large section of travelling fans wild when they equalised half a minute into the penalty, Hepburn giving up the rebound from an initial Elder shot that Davies knocked in from the floor. Their joy was short-lived – just two minutes later Daniel Abercrombie got the last touch as the puck ended up in the net after a goalmouth scramble, then the game was effectively ended a minute later when a wayward Billingham pass in the neutral zone was picked up and threaded through the defence, finally being slotted home by Juraj Senko. The Stars attempts to get back into the game were thwarted by a series of disputed calls that put the Teessiders on the penalty kill for the majority of the time remaining, the League champions able to control play as the clock counted towards a historic third treble of League, Cup and Playoff titles for the Dumfries outfit.
Man-of-the-Match for Billingham was James Flavell.
Daniel Abercrombie 1+0; Juraj Senko 1+0; Scott Henderson 1+0; Joe Coulter 0+1; Connor Henderson 0+1; Duncan Speirs 0+1; Kim Miettinen 0+1; Struan Tonnar 0+1; Steven Moore 0+1
SOG: Calum Hepburn 31 (8 / 12 / 11)
Callum Davies 1+0; Michael Elder 0+1; James Moss 0+1
SOG: James Flavell 48 (16 / 9 / 23)
Billingham’s Director of Coaching Terry Ward was naturally disappointed to lose but acknowledged the Sharks achievement:
“It was a really tough game. Solway are a really good side, they’ve proven that over the year and they’ve won everything in sight now. We gave them a hard game – I was disappointed with some of the calls against us. Overall it was a fantastic game, we clawed our way back to level things, but they got that goal back straight away and then the third goal killed the game off, they’re so tough at the back to get round. Congratulations to the Sharks, they’ve got the treble and it’s well deserved.”
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NIHL(N)1 Playoff Competition:
Semi-Final 1: Billingham Stars 7 Blackburn Hawks 3
Semi-Final 2: Solway Sharks 3 Solihull Barons 2 (after overtime)
Grand Final: Solway Sharks 3 Billingham Stars 1
NIHL(N)2 Playoff Competition:
Semi-Final 1: Widnes Wild 2 Altrincham Aces 0
Semi-Final 2: Blackburn Eagles 1 Sheffield Senators 3
Grand Final: Widnes Wild 2 Sheffield Senators 1