A pulsating NIHL North Cup game saw a dramatic late Dean Holland penalty shot ensure victory for Whitley Warriors over Blackburn Hawks at Hillheads on Sunday evening.
With only 13 seconds remaining on the clock the Warriors captain held his nerve to fire home the match winning goal and lift his side to a battling 7-6 victory.
Warriors headed into the game high on confidence, with an impressive upturn in form seeing the Maroon and Gold pick up seven victories from their previous eight league and cup fixtures.
In stark contrast, the visitors made the trip north with recently appointed player-coach Steve Duncombe still striving to eradicate a slump in results that had seen the reigning league and play-off champions pick up just two victories since the beginning of October.
Warriors chose to rest first choice netminder Richie Lawson, opting instead to start with Jordan Boyle between the pipes, backed up by the experienced Rory Dunn.
Jordan Barnes was also unavailable to take to the ice with the popular power forward’s absence providing an opportunity for Ben Richards and Liam Brown to continue their early season good form.
Blackburn opted to hand new recruit Corey Stones his debut, with only Thomas Parkinson absent from an otherwise strong looking away bench.
Whitley showed just how high morale is at the moment by coming out of the blocks with speed and intensity, taking the lead with only 37 seconds on the clock.
With Hawks picking up a tripping penalty, Warriors’ power play unit made no mistake in taking an early lead when Shaun Kippin tapped home unmarked for 1-0 assisted by player-coach David Longstaff.
It was so nearly 2-0 less than a minute later when Dean Holland found himself one-on-one with Niks Trapans only to see the young netminder deny his efforts with the pads.
The visitors were struggling to gain a foothold in the contest and fell further behind when Dean Holland thundered home a slapshot from the right side boards after a clever drop pass from Callum Watson timed 7.45.
It took until the tenth minute for Blackburn to create a clear opening, Rick Bentham able to skate in on Boyle only to have the Warriors netminder sprawl across his crease and stand firm to prevent the puck being forced home.
Playmaker DJ Good made it 3-0 when found unmarked by Watson, having escaped the attention of the Hawks defence before Richards ensured a 4-0 scoreline after 20 minutes, the youngster deking beyond his man and lifting back handed into the roof of the net on the power play at 18.13.
The second period started in much the same manner as the first with Warriors extending their lead to five unanswered goals timed at 20.32.
Controlling the puck on the right wing, Watson was able to take aim and wrist home low stick side beyond the newly installed Stu Ashton in the Blackburn goal after Hawks had opted to change netminder at the end of the first session.
Down on the scoreboard but determined to show they were still up for the battle, Hawks began to up their physicality in an effort to match their hosts.
The game was starting to become fractious with a constant disruption to the flow prompted by penalty calls from the officials, but Aaron Davies offered his side hope when a speculative effort from the boards crept in at the near post to make it 5-1.
Tempers boiled over around the 36th minute mark resulting in a game misconduct call on Hawks’ Reese Cairney-Witter before Andre Payette and Corey Stones found themselves sitting 2+2 penalties for fighting.
The final word of a feisty second period would, however, go to Rick Bentham and his Hawks teammates when the forward scored his side’s second goal timed 38.54 to keep things interesting heading into the final session.
Having chosen not to dress in the middle session, Warriors player-coach Longstaff was back out on the ice with his team for the final period but saw the home side’s lead cut to just two goals after 41.52.
When a shot off the back boards fell to Mikko Siermann the Finn calmly cradled the puck with his stick before tucking away the opportunity presented to him.
Hawks were sensing they could get something from what had looked a lost cause and when Chris Butler scored a fourth, suddenly nerves were beginning to jangle in the stands.
Fans of the Maroon and Gold were screaming support for their heroes and when Dean Holland took charge of the puck after some neat stick handling by Liam Smedley to crash home a sixth, it looked as though Blackburn had finally been put to bed.
But they had not read the script and when first Aaron Davies then Bentham beat Boyle between the posts, it looked like overtime was looming with both teams deadlocked at 6-6.
But one final, dramatic twist was to unfold when with the scoreboard showing only 13 seconds of time to play Warriors’ attack was denied by Hawks defence illegally resulting in referee Steve Brown awarding a penalty shot. Up stepped captain Dean Holland who took responsibility admirably, keeping his cool and firing high glove side to complete a fantastic hat-trick and send the crowd into raptures celebrating a late 7-6 victory.
Man of the match for Whitley went to the outstanding three-goal hero Dean Holland, with the away honour going to Hawks netminder Ashton.
Following the game, Whitley Warriors assistant coach Dave Holland said: “A great escape at the end.
“We had a great first period, ran three lines and everything went well for us.
“The second period we decided that due to the advantage we had on the scoreboard, Lobby [David Longstaff] wouldn’t feature, so that he could stay on the bench and do a bit more of the coaching side, but then we fell into the kind of game Blackburn wanted to play.
“That cost us with the momentum and losing Andre [Payette] with the fight. The second period was a killer.
“The officials had a difficult night with some of the calls they had to make; the hit from behind and the check into the boards. It was always going to change the way the game went.
“From the bench it looked like the ref made the right call with the penalty shot and from looking like we were going into overtime, thankfully Dean [Holland] has finished it for us.
“We’d already made the decision prior to the game to give Richie Lawson a little break and use the game as an opportunity for Jordan Boyle and Rory Dunn.
“Unfortunately the way the game went we weren’t able to get Rory on at any stage, which we had hoped to do.
“Ben Richards has had another great game, and as I’ve said, he has real potential.
“We’ve improved from the beginning of the season, perhaps quicker than expected if I’m honest, we’re moving in the right direction and with another good win we’re pleased with how we’re shaping up.”
Warriors are back in action on Sunday, November 27, when Sutton Sting return to Hillheads in NIHL North Moralee Conference league action.
Face-off is at the usual time of 5pm for what promises to be another exciting game of hockey.