Whitley Warriors played their last league game of the 2014-15 season on Sunday evening when local rivals Billingham Stars edged a close NIHL North Division 1 encounter at Hillheads.
The home side were without head coach Simon Leach and young forward Callum Queenan, who were both away with the GB Under-18s in Estonia.
Warriors were also without alternate captain Dean Holland, who picked up a hand injury in the previous weekend’s victory over the Manchester Minotaurs, while skipper Jamie Tinsley took to the ice for the warm-up but did not play as he was not back to full match fitness after picking up a knock against Solway Sharks.
The home side started the game positively and took the lead four minutes in when Callum Watson used his speed to get away from the defence and then fired a sweet shot past Mark Watson.
As the period progressed both sides were creating openings, but it was Stars who grabbed the next goal when Michael Bowman fired home on 11 minutes.
Billingham took the lead three minutes later when blue liner Thomas Keeley found the back of the net after Paul Windridge had set up the young defenceman with a precise pass.
Late on in the opening period Whitley exerted pressure on the Stars goal but goalie Mark Watson was able to deal with all the shots that came his way in a frantic spell of play.
Warriors drew level shortly into the middle session through DJ Good.
Whitley’s flying winger Watson then picked up a minor slashing penalty with 25 minutes played and Stars made their man advantage count as Paul Windridge fired home around 20 seconds into the powerplay.
Both sides picked up further penalties during the remainder of the period but defences stood firm and Billingham held a narrow 3-2 lead after 40 minutes of end to end hockey.
Dave Holland’s Warriors started the final period on the front foot as they looked to find that crucial equalising goal, and with just over five minutes remaining DJ Good’s bullet of a shot flew into the back of the net from just inside the blue line to the delight of the Warriors fans.
But seconds later Warriors’ Martin Crammond was sent to the sin bin for a hooking misdemeanour while Whitley’s Josh Maddock and Billingham’s James Moss were both penalised for roughing after an altercation.
Whitley were able to kill off the hooking penalty successfully with the likes of Dan Pye and Rob Wilson impressing on their short-handed specialist teams.
But with just over a minute left in the contest Billingham’s Keeley grabbed his second of the game to go 4-3 in front.
Warriors pressed in the remaining seconds but could not score as Stars’ Watson was able to turn away shots from Dan Harris, Adam Reynolds and Watson.
Warriors’ up and coming ‘d’ man Liam Smedley, who partnered Dan Pye on the defensive line throughout the contest, was selected as Whitley’s best player while veteran winger Paul Windridge was chosen as Stars’ best performer.
Whitley assistant coach Holland said: “I thought that was a great performance, especially when you consider we were missing a number of strong players from our line-up.
“Jamie [Tinsley] warmed up but he wasn’t quite right and we didn’t want to risk making his injury any worse when we have important games coming up.
“We went with the strongest lines we could - three good forward lines and we still had six men back on defence.
“Scott Cooper went up front for us but that wasn’t a problem to him as he’s played as a forward at his previous club. Kyle Ross did well too and he’s one for the future, he’s a youngster that will do well in the years to come.
“Looking ahead to the play-off games we will be going in with the right mental attitude and we will be well prepared for the games.
“We should have Jamie Tinsley and Dean [Holland] back for those games, though we are unsure on whether Richie Lawson will be back so we’ll have to wait and see on that one.”
Warriors’ next match ups take place over the weekend of April 11 and 12 when they take on Widnes Wild in the two-legged relegation play-off series.
Warriors are at home for the second leg on Sunday, April 12, at their normal 5pm face-off time for what will be the final game of the 2014-15 NIHL North campaign.