WHITLEY Warriors are still on course to retain their English National League North Play-Off title after coming from behind to see of the challenge of Blackburn Hawks at a noisy Hillheads last Sunday.
Trailing by a couple of goals from the first game, the Warriors were looking to make a good start to the home leg but soon found themselves further in arrears as the visitors netted on a powerplay through Lance Derbyshire inside the opening two minutes.
Callum Watson was on hand to restore parity when he made the extra man count for Whitley at 9.01, but within two minutes the visitors had again extended their overall lead to three goals when Sam Dunford hit the third powerplay goal of the session.
That left the defending champions with just 40 minutes to extend their season and, once they got going, they did it in some style.
The Warriors drew level again on 29 minutes when DJ Good picked the puck up deep inside his own half before weaving his way through the Blackburn defence and rifled home to get the home fans on their feet applauding.
That proved to be the catalyst for the eventual home win as Whitley took heart form that piece of brilliant individualism, while the visitors perhaps knew from that moment on they were heading out.
Karl Culley has been missing from the line-up for almost two months through injury, but even though he is not fully fit, the forward with more than 300 Warriors goals to his name certainly knows how to find the back of the net; and two crucial strikes before the second interval brought his side to the brink of qualification for the final.
With the aggregate scores level at 4-4, there was in effect a one period game to decide the tie and it was the home side who grabbed the initiative.
A little under eight minutes of regulation time remained when a second piece of individual brilliance finally put the title holders in control.
Skipper Adam Reynolds managed to swivel past the last defender, dragging the puck with him, and then went round the keeper to net the goal that put them ahead in the tie.
That forced Blackburn to try and grab the goal that would have taken the game into sudden-death overtime, but within seconds of them withdrawing their netminder for the extra forward, Culley completed his hat-trick.
“We had a game plan with the aim being to put Blackburn under pressure right from the start, but that went out of the window quickly when we gave that goal up,” said coach Simon Leach.
“It wasn’t the ideal start and we were a little passive for a spell after that, but once we were able to get the players into the dressing room and remind them what was at stake, things certainly improved.”
However, Leach felt Blackburn were never the same side after DJ Good had scored his sensational goal.
“Give them credit because they have given it a real go over the two legs,” he said.
“But we probably had enough chances in the second period alone to win the tie, however, that effort from DJ was something special and certainly turned things our way.
“After that we played pretty much in their end and didn’t give too much away at the back, so when Adam Reynolds finally put us ahead overall with ten minutes remaining with the kind of goal that shows why he is the leading scorer in the division, we were pretty much on our way to the final.”
The Warriors have to wait until the other semi-final – not yet underway – is completed before they can even think about who they might play.
“To be honest, the two games with Blackburn wouldn’t have been a bad final and both sets of fans created a brilliant atmosphere, but now we have to sit and wait; which I find unbelievable,” added Leach.
“We have a bunch of players who basically play for fun and they are expected to stretch their season out into May, when both professional leagues are done and dusted by this weekend.
“It’s disappointing, league officials really have to sit down over the summer and works something out so we don’t have a situation like this happening again next season.”