The first home game of 2017 saw a dominant Whitley Warriors pick up a fantastic 4-1 derby victory over the Billingham Stars on Sunday evening in a much needed Tyne-Tees triumph.
A double from captain Dean Holland and further goals from Callum Watson and Jordan Barnes helped to lift the Hillheads outfit to a deserved victory after they had lost out 5-3 on the road to league leaders Solway Sharks the previous evening.
Saturday had seen Warriors put in a commendable showing on the road at Solway, and despite the defeat, player-coach David Longstaff could take heart from his players pushing this season’s outstanding team all the way.
Whitley took a deserved 2-0 lead with goals either side of the first period interval from Holland and Harry Harley, only for Sharks to score four unanswered goals in the second period.
Youngster Anthony Wetherall scored his maiden goal for the club to offer some hope at 4-3 with just less than ten minutes remaining, but a rapid powerplay strike from Solway saw the Sharks skate to a 5-3 victory.
Warriors welcomed neighbours Billingham Stars on Sunday for a league and cup showdown knowing they would once again be without the services of experienced Canadian Andre Payette, with the winger still missing through suspension.
Joe Stamp came back into the fold on the blue line having missed the trip to Solway, bolstering a strong roster available to Longstaff with options available to rotate the lines.
Billingham arrived full of confidence on the back of only one defeat in their last nine games in all competitions, sitting second in the NIHL North 1 Moralee Conference standings.
The visitors were boosted by the recent addition of popular D man Ross Hanlon, with the former Warrior rejoining Billingham following some time away from the game.
Swedish duo Dennis Bostrom and Daniel Palmebjork were hoping history would repeat itself, having proved to be the match-winners the last time the two teams met on Tyneside last October.
In this the first local clash since the passing of Warriors fan Bobby Dixon late last year, Stars fans showed their class by joining in a chorus of ‘One Bobby Dixon’ once the puck had dropped to get the game under way.
Both sides responded to a vociferous opening few minutes from the stands by looking to go at each other hard and fast.
After a frantic opening five minutes it was apparent Warriors’ game plan was to push their visitors back into their own defensive zone, setting up camp around the Stars net and work shooting opportunities from down below.
Whilst Warriors were gaining the territorial advantage, Billingham were always looking for quick breakout plays, feeding Bostrom, with the Swede cutting from the right wing to find shooting lanes.
With Whitley gradually taking control it was fitting the best chance of a pulsating opening fell at the stick of Warriors skipper Dean Holland around the 18-minute mark. Fed by Longstaff from below, Holland was able to fire off an instant wrist shot from the slot only to be denied by a leaping James Flavell, the Stars netminder able to throw up an arm and stick to divert the puck safely away from goal.
The second period began with Whitley having a man advantage with James Moss serving a hooking call for Billingham. And it took the Maroon and Gold just 18 seconds to take the lead.
A quick exchange in the neutral zone allowed Holland to advance before lashing an unstoppable slap shot from near the right wing boards beyond Flavell with the assist from Harley.
The goal seemed to spark a response from a shocked Stars team, who began to increase efforts having seemingly been happy to soak up pressure.
The tactic paid dividends at when Stars were able to nick the puck deep in Warriors territory before feeding an unmarked Chris Sykes to level.
Unbelievably, parity lasted a mere ten seconds before Warriors regained their advantage as Watson tapped home an unguarded rebound following a Barnes effort for 2-1.
Tails were up and confidence was visibly growing in the home ranks. Stars were having to take more risks to force the issue but got caught cold at 35.18, Callum Watson speeding away down the right wing before angling towards the Stars goal and when his effort saw the puck fall loose, Barnes grabbed a deserved goal for a 3-1 score line.
From the resulting face-off at centre ice, Warriors were able to regain possession of the puck instantly and just 21 seconds later they notched their fourth of a crazy second period; Holland scoring his second of the game assisted by Josh Maddock.
No doubt the Warriors coaching staff would have warned their players of complacency heading into the final 20 minutes of an explosive derby that had gone the way of the home side thus far.
If Warriors had been urged to approach with caution in the final session then Stars had been ordered to give everything available to find a route back into a game that was slipping away at speed.
Youngster Anthony Wetherall found himself in a fantastic situation to add to his opening Warriors goal at Solway the previous night, but with pressure being applied he was only able to shoot at the pads of Flavell.
Despite being the team needing to create chances, Billingham were struggling create clear openings against a resolute Warriors D.
When Dan Pye was called on a holding offence, Stars were gifted a powerplay opportunity to reduce arrears. But try as they may there was no way beyond a tireless Warriors penalty kill or netminder Richie Lawson.
Power forward Barnes went close to adding a fifth late on, but a controlled third period ensured a thoroughly dominant 4-1 derby victory for the Warriors.
Man of the match for Whitley Warriors went to the hard-working Ben Richards, with Flavell nominated as the outstanding player for Billingham.
After the game, Warriors assistant coach Dave Holland said: “We’ve recorded a brilliant result this evening. I felt we dominated the game right from the off and throughout every period.
“Bearing in mind Billingham have the best two imports in the league in Palmebjork and Bostrom, James Flavell has had a very good game for them stopping 47 shots and yet we’ve come out with a 4-1 score line … we were the better team.
“It’s a continuation from Solway on Saturday night. We played well up at Solway and were in control for the first 20 minutes, but we slipped into a ten-minute spell in the second that cost us the game. That’s ice hockey and these things can happen after we left ourselves with too much to do once we regained the standards we had set.
“Tonight we’ve played superbly well as a team and everyone played their part, but I would give mention to DJ Good and Dean Holland. Dean has scored important goals and whilst DJ didn’t get any points, he played very solid and provided a platform.
Jordan [Barnes] and Dean [Holland] switched lines tonight from where they played up at Solway and I thought it was something that worked well.
“You can have the best lines and systems in the world but if you don’t work hard you’ll get nowhere, so we need to continue working hard and let the lines and tweaks sort themselves out.
“The league has had its break and everyone has come back after the Christmas period looking to push on.
“It was important to get the two points after the deduction and to grab them against not only our local rivals, but a team flying high, second in the league, with two class imports, and our lads have dominated, it’s a fantastic win.”
Whitley Warriors are back in league action at home to Deeside Dragons on Sunday when they will be looking to keep up their 100 per cent winning record over the NIHL North 1 Moralee new boys from North Wales. Face-off is at the usual time of 5pm.