Weekend Preview: Stars Challenge Top Dogs
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars have the toughest of draws in the quarter-finals of the National Ice Hockey League (N) playoffs this weekend as they take on new League champions Sheffield Steeldogs in a home and away series, starting tonight at the Forum.
The Steeldogs clinched the Moralee Division 1 title in nail-biting fashion last weekend as the destination of the League trophy went down to the wire. The fixtures schedule saw Sheffield play the only other contenders for the title, Hull Pirates, twice in what became a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. The Pirates holding a slender one-point advantage going into the weekend, the Steeldogs needed to win both games, a feat they duly performed. After getting a narrow 1-0 victory on home ice on Saturday, they got their hands on the trophy after an evening of high drama on Humberside which saw them run out 4-6 winners. The playoff format means the champions play the lowest ranked team in this quarter-final weekend and with four straight victories over the Stars already this season, Sheffield will be confident of progressing.
To a certain extent the pressure is off Billingham this weekend. As the eighth placed seed in the playoff competition, no one outside Teesside will give the Stars much chance of getting past a side that finished 39 points ahead of them in the regular season. There are several reasons to not give up the weekend as a foregone conclusion however – of the ‘big three’ former English Premier League sides, the Steeldogs is the only one that Billingham took any points from with an overtime loss in October. Last Sunday’s huge derby win over Whitley Warriors saw the Stars put in one of their best performances of the season at just the right time, giving them the confidence they need to face the champions. Billingham should have a good-sized squad available for both games, although Andy Finn may still be unavailable. Injury may keep out Ethan Hehir, whilst Scott Ward and Darren Stattersfield will definitely miss out through injury and suspension respectively.
The Stars’ Director of Coaching Terry Ward knows that everything must go his side’s way this weekend if they are to pull off a shock:
“First and foremost we need to stay with them – if we let them get away from us then we will not claw it back. They are too quick and too slick with their passing for that. The pressure is all on them though – no one expects us to turn them over, but we know that when we play at our absolute best we are more than capable of giving them a game. If this is to be our last weekend of the season then we have no excuses – we must leave everything we have out there on the ice and give both games every last ounce of effort. The home game at the Forum I truly believe we can push them hard on our smaller pad – let’s see where we come out of that game and then who knows what might happen in Sheffield?”
The playoff quarter final series sees Billingham host Sheffield Steeldogs tonight at the Forum (face off 6pm) before travelling to IceSheffield for the second leg tomorrow evening (face off 5.30pm). Tickets for tonight’s game can be bought from the box office from 5pm priced at £10 adults, £6 concessions, £30 family [2+2].
Whitley Warriors v Telford Tigers, Saturday 5pm
Billingham Stars v Sheffield Steeldogs, Saturday 6pm
Hull Pirates v Blackburn Hawks, Saturday 6pm
Solway Sharks v Solihull Barons, Saturday 7pm
Sheffield Steeldogs v Billingham Stars, Sunday 5.30pm
Blackburn Hawks v Hull Pirates, Sunday 5.45pm
Solihull Barons v Solway Sharks, Sunday 6pm
Telford Tigers v Whitley Warriors, Sunday 6pm
Images: at the Forum - Tony Burgum; at IceSheffield - Peter Best