Finish With A Flourish?
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars need to recover some pride with just a few weeks of their National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 campaign left to run, aiming to finish their season on high after a largely disappointing struggle.
Billingham travel to Hull Pirates tomorrow with the Humberside outfit engaged in a three-way dogfight for the League title. Sitting a point off top spot in second place, the Pirates will be looking at this weekend as a ‘banker’ four points as they take on the League’s bottom two sides. The top three are separated by a single point, so no one can afford any slip-ups at this late stage of the season. Hull will have one eye on the clash between their championship rivals Telford Tigers and Sheffield Steeldogs in Shropshire on Sunday as the destiny of the title goes down to the wire. A recent spanner in the Pirates’ works has been the condition of their ice, the facility closed during this week to build the surface back up to the correct level after technical issues with the ice plant.
A weekend on the road is completed with a trip to Tyneside for Sunday’s North East derby clash with Whitley Warriors. The way the fixtures have worked out means this is the first of a ‘mini series’ with the Teessiders’ local rivals, the home leg is the Stars final game of the season next Sunday. The Warriors can be rightly pleased with the way their campaign has gone, they have picked up points where they needed to and consequently have manoeuvred themselves into the playoffs in fifth place with arguably the ‘easiest’ of first round ties available against Solway Sharks. Their final two games against Billingham will provide the perfect warm-up for what is sure to be the most closely contested of the first-round playoff match-ups. As has been the case for much of the season, Whitley will look to the scoring capability of Ben Campbell to get them through as the former Guildford Flame heads for over 50 goals this campaign.
The Stars will not look on this season too fondly. A promising start has been largely forgotten and the campaign has been dogged by too many off-ice issues leading to a merry-go-round of players coming in and out of the side. Never has the importance of a settled, consistent squad been more perfectly illustrated – individually Billingham can point to some great performances, not least from their junior players - but as a team the ingredients have not been there for a successful year. This weekend will be the same story as the Stars hit the road – much will depend upon which players are on the bus with Richie Thornton, Ben Davison, Andy Finn and Jack Emerson all absent. Billingham will expect to be up against it in Hull, a rink that has not been particularly kind to them in recent years, but must be aiming for a much better showing against their nearest neighbours on Sunday.
.The Stars’ General Manager Allen Flavell recognises that the final weeks of the season are important to give his side a lift going into the summer, with big changes afoot:
“These final four games are all about playing for pride, giving ourselves something to smile about after a long, difficult season. There are significant changes coming to the League for next season, we need to be prepared much better than this one and get ourselves straight. There is no better motivation to perform than a local derby, no matter what sport you play, getting one over your closest rivals stirs the blood. We want to put a dent in the Warriors confidence and at least have North East bragging rights to finish our campaign.”
Billingham are on the road in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 this weekend, a trip to Hull Pirates tomorrow evening (face off 6pm) followed by the Tyne-Tees derby against Whitley Warriors at Hillheads on Sunday afternoon (face off 5pm).
Sheffield Steeldogs v Solihull Barons, game awarded 5-0 to Sheffield
Blackburn Hawks v Telford Tigers, Saturday 6pm
Hull Pirates v Billingham Stars, Saturday 6pm
Solway Sharks v Nottingham Lions, Saturday 7pm
Whitley Warriors v Billingham Stars, Sunday 5pm
Sutton Sting v Blackburn Hawks, Sunday 5.30pm
Solihull Barons v Solway Sharks, Sunday 6pm
Telford Tigers v Sheffield Steeldogs, Sunday 6pm
Nottingham Lions v Hull Pirates, Sunday 7.30pm
All images courtesy of Linda Crabtree