WHITLEY Warriors’ two-year grip on the English National League play-off title ended last weekend when they failed to overcome Blackburn Hawks in the two-legged semi-final.
Trailing 5-3 after the first leg in Lancashire on Saturday – Whitley had been 5-1 down at the first break after making a poor start – hopes would have been high that they could overcome the deficit at Hillheads the following night.
However, it was to be the visitors who again had the better of the opening period and goals from Tom King (7.16) and Richard Hughes (14.55) put the Hawks in the driving seat, both goals coming on the powerplay as Whitley constantly fell foul of the referee.
The second goal Whitley fell particularly aggrieved about as it came after a cross-checking by a Blackburn player had gone unpunished and in the ensuing melee, it was the Warriors who ended up with the majority of the penalties.
However, despite starting the middle session well, the home side found themselves further in arrears when Sami Narkia scored in the 27th minute to make the Whitley task almost impossible.
But to their credit they never gave up and had the visitors rocking when they netted twice in just seven seconds.
DJ Good found space in front of goal to open the Whitley account at 32.06 and then won the resulting face off for Jordan Barnes to race up the left wing and squeezed the puck home for a second goal just moment later.
Had Whitley been able to get an equaliser – and they came close – the whole game might have changed, but Blackburn weathered the storm and hit a telling blow just before the end of the period when King grabbed his second of the night.
Again the home side came charging out in the final twenty minutes and DJ Good scored his second of the night in the 43rd minute, but the away side responded almost immediately with another Narkia strike.
Barnes then tipped the puck beyond the visitors’ keeper at 45.58 and that was the signal for Whitley to lay siege to the Blackburn goal.
However, despite going agonisingly close on several occasions, they could not even tie the game and were caught by the sucker-punch with two minutes remaining when Rick Ravey finally confirmed the tie was beyond their reach.
“Hats off to Blackburn, they have done very well since the turn of the year and I knew it would be a tough weekend for us,” admitted Whitley coach Garry Dowd after the game.
“They came out all guns blazing in the first period on Saturday and deserved their 5-1 lead, but I have to credit my players for the way they came back to score the only other two goals that night and give themselves a chance in the second game.
“But, even though I thought we started well tonight, once the Hawks scored somewhat against the run of play that set us back a bit, and we then got involved in some stuff we shouldn’t have, which handed the initiative to them.”
“I certainly couldn’t fault the effort of my players tonight,” added Dowd, “but every time we got ourselves in contention, they (Blackburn) seemed to be able to find another goal from somewhere and we were never able to put them under as much pressure as I would have liked.”
However, even though Whitley will end the season trophy-less for the first time in three seasons, Dowd still feels it has been a good campaign for the club.
“It’s my rookie season as coach and maybe someone with more experience might have been able to make a call that would have changed the game,” he confessed, “but we are where we are and I thought it was a good effort from everyone.
“When I took over we had just lost ten players from our championship winning side and the main aim was to stabilise the club, so to finish where we have done in the league has been an achievement for the players we have now and we have also unearthed some good young talent as well; which has pleased me immensely.”
The Warriors were without Martin Crammond at the weekend as the forward had a groin operation a few days earlier and Dowd is looking forward to having him back next season.
“We all wish Martin well and hope he is back on the ice soon and raring to go once the new season gets underway,” he said.
Blackburn will now go on to meet the winner of this weekend’s semi-final between Billingham Stars and Telford Titans; the outcome of which will decide when the Warriors play Billingham in their outstanding English Cup fixture.
Should the Stars win through the game is likely to be held on April 22, but if Telford are successful the match will probably take place a week earlier on April 15.
Although they have no ice hockey action this weekend, the Warriors will be making their annual visit to the Children’s Ward of North Tyneside General Hospital to hand out Easter eggs to kids unfortunate enough to be away from home over the holiday period.