Whitley Warriors hang on to beat Billingham Stars in 11-goal thriller
For the second weekend in succession Whitley Warriors and Billingham Stars played out a high scoring and thrilling NIHL North Cup affair.
On this occasion saw Warriors took the win with a 6-5 scoreline.
Doubles from the impressive Ben Richards and captain Dean Holland helped Whitley to pick up their maiden victory in all competitions on a night when Billingham hosted their own fundraising efforts for youngster Frankie Sherwood in a show of solidarity and incredible generosity.
Warriors travelled to Billingham missing key personnel in a season so far blighted by absentees come game night.
Imposing defenceman Dan Pye, the only recently returned Callum Watson and experienced playmaker DJ Good, all failed to make the trip down the A19 at a time when coach David Longstaff was be hoping to name settled line combinations as his squad look to play catch up with their rivals.
The lack of bodies saw Andre Payette move back up into a left wing role on the same line as Dean Holland and Martin Crammond, with Harry Harley resuming duties on the blue line alongside Joe Stamp, Josh Maddock and Craig Johnson.
In stark contrast, a strong and deep looking roster for Stars, including previous match-winner Daniel Palmebjork, welcomed their neighbours to the Forum.
Having taken the opening game of the head to head series between the clubs last weekend 4-3 at Hillheads, Stars opted to rest their regular starting netminder James Flavell with Mark Watson taking over between the pipes.
Looking to gain a measure of revenge from being beaten on home ice, Warriors came out in determined fashion, ensuring no Stars player had time to get their head up during the opening few minutes of play.
Skating hard and with purpose, Warriors looked well drilled and their hard work paid early dividends when Richards opened the scoring at 4:06, tapping home at the far post a thunderous slap shot from the point by Harry Harley.
An enterprising first ten minutes had seen Warriors grow in confidence after the opener with Longstaff’s men first to every loose puck and playing with an intensity sorely lacking from Billingham.
Richards made it 2-0 on 11 minutes, picking up a creative reverse pass from Longstaff in the neutral zone before skating in on Watson and calmly placing low beyond the Stars netminder.
Whitley could sense their hosts were starting to panic and in a crazy 17-second spell extended their lead to an astonishing four-goal advantage.
Firstly Longstaff recreated a carbon copy of the Richards goal at 12:30 before Shaun Kippin tapped home unmarked with a wide open goal at his mercy.
Stars sniper Dennis Bostrom pulled one back on the power play timed 17:31, but there was little doubt Warriors were well worth their 4-1 lead after a dominating opening 20 minutes.
If the first period had belonged to the visitors then there was little doubt the second session saw Billingham rally and take ownership of the game, but not before a fired up Payette had pinged a dangerous looking effort off of Watson’s right hand post.
Stars were becoming more and more of a threat following some strong words during the first interval and reduced their arrears to two when former Warrior Jack Watkins chose to unleash a first time shot from the slot having been teed up by Palmebjork.
Watkins nearly had his second of the evening when his wrist shot clipped the top of the Warriors goal, but Stars did make it 4-3 and a one goal game going into the third period when Richie Lawson was unable to prevent a Chris Sykes effort looping into the net behind him despite his best efforts.
One last huge effort was needed by the Tynesiders to protect their lead, and with Payette barking out orders and Harley looking a much needed calm head, it was still all to play for between two evenly matched combatants.
A game that had swung one way then another looked to have gone back in favour of a Warriors team who started the third with renewed composure when in possession of the puck and, like they had done in the opening period, were rewarded their good play with a goal.
After Payette had won a face-off left of the Billingham goal, Warriors captain Dean Holland was first to the loose puck, controlling before seeing his shot blocked. Not to be deterred the team in Maroon and Gold kept up the pressure and Crammond was able to feed Holland once more to force home at close range.
Refusing to lay down and give up on what had been a pulsating contest, Billingham moved to within one once more at 45:58 when James Moss’ effort squeezed in low after Bowman had won the draw to the left of Lawson in the Warriors goal.
Stars began to notably increase the intensity of their fore checking efforts in an attempt to unsettle a young Warriors D, but try as they may they could not find any clear openings to take advantage from.
Indeed, it was Billingham who were forced into making an error and when Jack Emmerson was penalised two minutes for tripping, Whitley made the most of their man advantage with Dean Holland cracking home a deflected power play marker at 53:56 for his second goal of the night.
Behind on the scoreboard 6-4 and with less than five minutes to play, Billingham simply had to throw everything at their dogged opponents, but despite Bowman setting up a grandstand finish with a tap in following a save from Lawson at 56:30, Warriors remained one step ahead.
Stars opted to pull netminder Watson for the extra skater with one minute remaining, but it was Whitley who took the derby honours this time round.
Richards received recognition for an outstanding performance by being named Warriors’ man of the match, Michael Elder taking the award for Billingham.
Warriors assistant Dave Holland expressed his delight after the final buzzer, claiming victory was just what the team had needed.
“We’re absolutely over the moon to have picked up the win,” he said.
“There’s no doubt we’ve needed it, regardless of it being league or cup.
“At the end of last season we maybe peaked just before the play-offs, and since then had a bit of a bad run.
“We’ve been unable to prepare for this season as we would have liked but we’ve improved, stuck to the game plan and finally been rewarded.
“Key players were missing tonight in the shape of Callum Watson with a little knock, DJ Good; these players make a difference.
“I felt first period we were well on top, the second didn’t work for us and credit Billingham they capitalised on that. But in the third, despite it getting close at the end, I thought we got back on top.
“There are still things to work on and lines may be tweaked but that’s another day.
“Ben Richards thoroughly deserved his man of the match tonight. Everyone played their part but Ben was outstanding. He has great potential and the ability to go places if he keeps progressing like we know he can.
“We’ll go down to Blackburn next weekend with a bit more confidence and see what we can do. But again, that’s for another day.”