Weekend Preview 18/19 January 2020: Up For The Cup!
ULTIMATE WINDOWS-sponsored Billingham Stars take a break from League action this weekend with a two-legged NIHL North Cup semi-final against local rivals Whitley Warriors on the agenda, tonight’s anticipated full house game at the Forum followed by the return match on Tyneside tomorrow evening.
The treble of League, Cup and Playoff crowns is still very much on for Whitley as their stated ambition of sweeping the board of trophies edges ever closer. The strongest squad in NIHL North has so far not disappointed, and although they are currently perched in second place in the League they are just a single point off the lead and have three games in hand over table-toppers Solway Sharks who have wobbled of late. With three League encounters left between the sides to come, Solway must now win all three and not drop points elsewhere if they are to deny the Warriors a first League title since 2011. The Cup offers another shot at silverware, and the Tynesiders will surely fancy their chances of progressing against a weakened Billingham outfit over whom they have five victories already in this campaign. Whitley have hit a rich vein of form with ten wins from their last 11 matches, their sole loss during that period a shock defeat at Murrayfield Racers in the round-robin stage of the Cup. That blip aside, the Warriors have swept all before them fairly comfortably, with Ben Campbell and Phil Edgar in particular catching the eye with some sterling performances.
By contrast the Stars win over Nottingham Lions on Sunday snapped a five-game losing streak as the Teessiders struggle with an inconsistent squad. A different side playing every weekend, indeed every game, has made life tough for the coaching team as they try to put together combinations that work on the ice. This Cup weekend will be no different as injuries and unavailability continue to plague the roster, stacking the odds even further against what would be a considerable upset. Tom Keeley and Czech import Daniel Šilar are unavailable for both games, whilst netminder Mark Watson is injured. Today the Stars will need to do without Darren Stattersfield, Matthew Campbell and Shaun Galloway, whilst tomorrow will see Andy Finn off the team sheet. Alternate Captain Callum Davies faces a late fitness test ahead of today’s game. Billingham will be boosted by their improved performances last weekend, but to make the Cup final they will need all that and more, plus that little bit of ‘puck luck’ that deserted them last Saturday when they dominated an out-of-sorts Sharks side in Dumfries but failed to take the points.
General Manager Allen Flavell knows it will take 100% effort from his side to spring a surprise this weekend:
“The boys are well up for this weekend but we know it will be a tall order given our previous form against the Warriors this season. We know what’s at stake, a place in the final against either Solway or Murrayfield, so it’s time to show what we’re capable of as we did last weekend. We have a few players unavailable but we have a good crop of talented juniors in our squad who have stepped up massively lately and are coming on leaps and bounds. It’s two games in isolation and two derbies to boot – we can forget the form book and give it our all.”
It’s a Tyne-Tees double header in the NIHL North Cup semi-finals this weekend as Billingham take on Whitley Warriors tonight at the Forum (face off 6pm) then make the short trip up to Hillheads tomorrow for the second leg (face off 5pm). Tickets for tonight’s game can be bought from the box office from 5pm priced at £12 adults, £7.50 concessions, £35 family [2+2] – a full house is expected so fans are advised to arrive early to avoid disappointment.
North Cup Semi-Finals:
Billingham Stars v Whitley Warriors, Saturday 6pm
Solway Sharks v Murrayfield Racers, Saturday 7pm
Whitley Warriors v Billingham Stars, Sunday 5pm
Murrayfield Racers v Solway Sharks, Sunday 6pm
Images courtesy of Linda Crabtree