Whitley Warriors got their 2015-16 NIHL North 1 Moralee Conference campaign off to the perfect start at Hillheads on Sunday evening.
New player-coach David Longstaff inspired his charges to a keenly contested 7-4 victory over Solway Sharks.
The returning Longstaff picked up three goals and two assists against a dogged and determined Sharks side that refused to go down without a fight and were a match for their hosts for long periods in the game despite ultimately falling short in their efforts to take something back to Dumfries.
Goals from Ben Richards, Callum Queenan, Jamie Tinsley and Callum Watson helped to put Warriors out of sight, yet it was their experienced new player-coach who grabbed the headlines and led by example from start to finish.
Both sides went into the game shorn of key players. Solway travelled without Alan Crane and Marc Fowley whilst the home team were missing long term injury victim Dean Holland, imposing D man Daniel Pye, the versatile Alex Lawson and new boy Joe Stamp.
Warriors also suffered a blow during the warm-up with Jordan Barnes forced to withdraw at the last minute.
Despite the list of absentees, Warriors were strengthened by summer additions Andre Payette and Shaun Kippin enabling the option of rolling with three lines throughout the 60 minutes.
With only 1:43 on the clock the first goal of a new season had the natives on their feet when Ben Richards’ shot from the slot crossed the goal line having been fed by Martin Crammond.
The early goal was the perfect start and helped to put Warriors on the front foot with momentum building from such a positive opening.
But Solway began to gain a foothold in the contest and the visitors were level at 9:49. On a powerplay after to a slashing call against Harry Harley, Sharks made their man advantage pay when Juraj Senko was able to redirect the puck over the shoulder of netminder Richie Lawson.
Not to be discouraged at being pegged back, Warriors continued to press and put pressure on Hobbins in the Sharks goal and it was not long before Longstaff marked his return with his first goal of the night.
Picking up possession following a face-off he was able to smartly manoeuvre his way into position and wristed into the top left corner to restore his side’s goal advantage after 12:52.
But back came the Sharks and when a glorious chance for Struan Tonnar on a breakaway was acrobatically saved by Lawson on a delayed penalty call, Warriors must have thought the danger was over. Unfortunately they had not counted on experienced Slovakian winger Martin Cingel and with Callum Watson in the box from the delayed holding call Solway once more levelled up with the man advantage as Cingel lit the lamp at 2-2 timed 16:08.
A mere 45 seconds later and Cingel had his second goal of the night and Sharks hit the front for the first time. The Slovak was allowed too much time and space to wander into the area to fire home low and hard to give the Sharks a 3-2 lead after the first period.
Warriors came out hard and fast perhaps feeling unjust at being behind made it 3-3 straight after the restart as Callum Queenan forced home from close range after Hobbins struggled to deal with a Payette slap shot.
Having soaked up yet more Warriors pressure and starting to rain in shots themselves, Sharks were able to take advantage of a miss control by the Whitley D near mid-ice and when Cingel raced clear down the right wing at 28:48 Duncan Spiers was placed perfectly to redirect an effort beyond Lawson.
That proved to be as good as it would get for the visitors, and whilst the opening 30 minuntes had been nip and tuck, Warriors upped the ante for the final half hour.
Skipper Jamie Tinsley tied the game at 4-4 when neat interplay between himself and the ever more influential Longstaff combined.
Watson grabbed the final goal of the middle session when with 31 seconds to go he was able to spin and wrist an unassisted fifth of the night for the home team and make the score 5-4 with one period to play.
In the final period, Longstaff picked up the puck and somehow found space to force it in at the near post.
Trailing 6-4 and with only 26 seconds remaining, Martin Grubb’s Sharks called a timeout and decided to pull netminder Kieran Hobbins for the extra skater.
But with five seconds remaining it was Longstaff who completed a dream return with his hat-trick goal and make the final score 7-4. Warriors running out deserved winners in the end.
Warriors’ next home game is Sunday, September 20, against newly promoted Solihull Barons. Face-off at Hilheads is 5pm.