Match Preview 6th October: A Trip to Tyneside
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars and local rivals Whitley Warriors will clash for the second time in the space of a week tomorrow evening, swapping Teesside for Tyneside as the two meet for a North Cup tie at Hillheads.
This time last week the venue was the Forum and a memorable National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 fixture that saw the Stars come back from first three and then two goals down to peg preseason favourites Whitley at five apiece at the end of regulation time. There was to be no storybook ending however, Phil Edgar settling the game for the visitors in overtime and Billingham having to be content with the single point.
The appetite whetted, another big crowd is expected at the Warriors’ Hillheads home tomorrow evening where both sides could do with a victory to put fresh impetus into their respective Cup campaigns. Whitley have played just the one game thus far, a 4-2 loss at Solway Sharks that caused a few eyebrows to raise. Player/Coach David Longstaff and last season’s top scorer Ben Campbell hit the Warriors markers that evening, and it is they, along with last Sunday’s hat trick hero Edgar, that the Stars will need to keep an eye on if they are to spring a surprise.
Billingham’s own Cup record is also at stake, a big win on the road at Dundee a fortnight ago was followed up by a defeat on home ice against Solway who top the early Cup table with two wins from two games. With the Moralee Conference sides likely to be fighting out the top three places, this fixture represents an excellent opportunity for the Stars to steal a march on their neighbours.
Adding another element into an already eagerly anticipated encounter, Billingham made a surprise announcement during the week as last season’s top scorer Chris Sykes returned to the club after playing just four games for new NIHL National side Leeds Chiefs. Sykes had made the decision to leave the Stars after five seasons on Teesside during the summer but the move has not worked out. Leeds loss is certainly Billingham’s gain as Sykes’ contribution to the Stars cause over those five seasons cannot be underestimated – consistently at or near the top of the scoring charts, Sykes poses an offensive threat that will concern the Warriors and indeed the rest of the League.
After pushing their neighbours so close last week, the Stars go into tomorrow’s game confident of making life tricky for Whitley on their own ice. The coaches now have plenty of options upfront, indeed Sykes’ signing may pose a headache as the top two forward lines have been working very well thus far. It is at the back where the problems still lie, Billingham likely to be without Tom Keeley and Ross Hanlon once again. Between the pipes there is also a decision to be made, Mark Watson turned in a Man-of-the-Match performance last weekend whilst Tom Brown and former Warriors netminder Mark Turnbull are also vying for a spot. Shaun Galloway misses the next three weeks minimum with a lower body injury, but Sykes is available for selection after completing the relevant paperwork to finalise his transfer from Leeds.
General Manager Allen Flavell believes his side can go one better this weekend and shock their rivals:
“Last Sunday was an epic game that had a bit of everything for the fans and at the end either side could have won it, it was a shame that anyone had to lose. We dug ourselves out of two holes during that game – coming back from 3-0 down was good, but to then rescue ourselves from being two behind again late on just shows the character in this dressing room. We are certainly more resilient these days. We just need to tighten up in some areas and the wins will come I’m sure. It’ll be another huge test at their place but we’ve certainly got the guys who can put the puck in the net, and Sykesy coming back into the fold is a massive boost for us.”
The Stars are in NIHL North Cup action at Whitley Warriors tomorrow evening, face off 5pm.
Solway Sharks v Solihull Barons, Saturday 7pm
Blackburn Hawks v Solihull Barons, Sunday 5.30pm
Nottingham Lions v Sutton Sting, Sunday 7.30pm
Whitley Warriors v Billingham Stars, Sunday 5pm
Murrayfield Racers v Solway Sharks, Sunday 6pm
Images: Linda Crabtree