WHITLEY Warriors went into the game with defending champions Solway Sharks knowing anything other than a win would seriously dent their hopes of adding the Northern League crown to the English National League title.
However, despite dominating much of the opening session, things did not go the way Whitley had hoped in the first 20 minutes and they found themselves two goals down.
A double minor for accidental high sticks against Dan Harris proved costly as David Orr opened the scoring at 13.46, when he was quickest to react to a loose puck almost on the Whitley goal line.
Solway then got a break when Peter Zajac was pulled down from behind when clear of the last defender, but the referee deemed no foul had been committed.
And the home side rode that luck to double their advantage with nine seconds of the period remaining when Pavol Melichercik saw an intended pass beat the Whitley keeper.
The Warriors needed to start the middle session well and with a man advantage they did just that as Paul Windridge was on hand to open their account 33 seconds from the re-start, when the Sharks netminder could only parry an Adam Reynolds shot.
It was all Whitley and they drew level when Andy Thornton played a long pass out of the visitors defensive zone and Shaun Kippin was quickly past the slow turning Chris Conaboy to bear down on goal, his rasping shot easily beating Russell in the home goal.
However, once again Solway had some good fortune as Orr raced clear just moments after the Warriors had again appealed in vain for what looked a blatant penalty and when he scored at 35.36, the champions were able to take a slender 3-2 lead into the final period.
Whitley upped the pace yet again at the start of the closing session and got their reward when Zajac pulled Whitley level on 46 minutes, with a shot that hit both posts before the puck rolled over the line.
It was Windridge who gave Whitley the lead for the first time with a goal at 49.24; and less than two minutes later Reynolds smashed the puck into the back of the net from close range to give Whitley some vital breathing space.
And that proved crucial as the Sharks tried all they could to get back into the game, but had only a 53rd minute Struan Tonnar powerplay goal to show for their efforts as the Warriors defending was superb; especially as they seemed to be playing constantly short-handed in those closing stages.
“We haven’t faced this calibre of opposition for a while,” said ecstatic coach Simon Leach afterwards.
“I had challenged the team to show me what they could do and, even after falling behind, I think they showed what they are capable of tonight.
“It was a hard fought encounter that was played in the way by both teams that we have come to expect whenever they meet now and I thought we responded magnificently when we found ourselves trailing at the end of the first period.
“But I told the players in the interval that it was important that we didn’t lose the second period, and that’s exactly what they did, even though Solway again managed to find something out of nothing to keep themselves ahead at 3-2.
“But I knew our chance would come, because we had played so well all night and when we netted three times in six minutes in the third that was good enough.
“They have battled from the first whistle to the last, and I was proud of them as everyone showed the qualities I have been asking for all season.
“Sometimes we maybe haven’t had to perform at our best to win games in the English National League, but that is so different when we come north of the border, and tonight every player has stood up to be counted and we have produced an excellent result that means we go to Fife on Saturday full of confidence.”
The Warriors travel to league leaders Fife Flyers knowing another victory is vital if they are to land the trophy.
“Despite our win in Solway, we still need to win three games against Fife to be champions; and that is probably something no Whitley side has done in a long time,” Leach admitted.
“But we will go there full of confidence and all we can do is give it our best shot, knowing we were good enough to win a league game in Kirkcaldy last season; and a repeat this weekend would set us up nicely for the two matches with them at Hillheads next month.”
The Warriors are also in English National League action on Sunday when Nottingham Lions are the visitors to Hillheads (face-off 5pm) for a game that is sponsored by Pantrini’s, the main sponsors of the Warriors this season.