Into The Home Stretch
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars are in the home stretch of what has turned out to be a disappointing season in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1, the minimum target of a playoff place now all but gone from their grasp.
Blackburn Hawks are the visitors for the penultimate home game of the regular season, the team that has almost certainly deprived the Stars of the eighth and final playoff berth. A scrappy game between the two sides last Sunday in Lancashire went the way of the Hawks by three goals to nil as Billingham seemingly left their shooting sticks on the bus. That match represented the Teessiders’ last realistic chance of catching their old rivals, Blackburn sitting now five points ahead and with a game in hand. Mathematically the Stars could still catch both their visitors tomorrow and Sutton Sting, but time is running out and both of the two sides sitting just above them have a game left against winless bottom club Nottingham Lions. For the miracle to happen Billingham would need to win all of their remaining games, including a fixture against leaders Hull Pirates, and hope either Sutton or Blackburn drop all but that game against the Lions.
The problem for the Stars for much of the season has been the changes to the side that ices week after week. The coaching team have been unable to select the same side with any sort of consistency, meaning line changes and adapting to different systems has unsettled the squad. There has been no lack of effort, and the performances from the younger members of the roster that have been asked to step up have been the bright spots of an otherwise lacklustre campaign. Luck has played its part also, and the gradual seeping away of confidence that comes when you are losing games that you should be winning. Billingham have five matches left to prove a point to the rest of the League that they are better than their current position suggests, starting tomorrow. They have few injury concerns going into the game, Edgar Protčenko returning to the line-up after missing last weekend, but the side that ices will once more depend upon who the coaches are able to call on.
The Stars’ Director of Coaching Terry Ward has called on his side to finish the regular season with a flourish instead of a whimper:
“We know that to all intents and purposes the playoffs are out of reach, but that should not stop us playing for them. That last spot is still there for the taking in theory, it’s up to us to put in a shift and fight until the end. We need to play for pride, play for the shirt and play for the fans that have turned up week in, week out and continue to give us great support. One thing is for sure, we need to make their netminder work harder than we did last week, I lost count of the number of chances we had that we wasted. Put those away and we might have been in a different position this Sunday.”
The Stars take on Blackburn Hawks tomorrow in National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee Division 1 at the Forum, face off 6.30pm. Tickets can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm priced at £10.50 adults, £6.50 concessions, £32 family [2+2].
Blackburn Hawks v Nottingham Lions, Saturday 6pm
Solway Sharks v Sutton Sting, Saturday 7pm
Whitley Warriors v Sheffield Steeldogs, Sunday 5pm
Sutton Sting v Solway Sharks, Sunday 5.30pm
Billingham Stars v Blackburn Hawks, Sunday 6.30pm
Images: Steve Pollitt / Linda Crabtree