AFTER dropping a surprise point away to Sheffield the night before, league leaders Fife Flyers arrived at Hillheads needing a draw to secure the Northern League title.
And they had the backing of a large following when they skated onto the Hillheads ice ready to extend their unbeaten 21 game run in the competition.
But they found the Warriors fans in equally good voice – even before the game started – and once the action got underway it was the home side who dominated the early exchanges and Fife could barely get the puck out of their end of the ice in the opening five minutes.
However, after surviving that initial onslaught, it was the visitors who took the lead with a smart finish from Steven Lynch at 8.26.
But if that was clinical, it was nothing compared to the effort from Callum Watson that brought Whitley level in the 15th minute.
The young forward sped past the last defender and unleashed a shot that had both precision and power while they had the man advantage.
Marc Fowley did add a second for the visitors a couple of minutes later, but the Flyers could count themselves lucky that they held a first interval lead.
Having played so well in the opening 20 minutes, Whitley might have been forgiven if they thought it was not to be their night, but they came out for the middle session determined to put things right.
Watson levelled the game inside two minutes and the Warriors were in front for the first time at 30.44 when Ritchie Thornton drove the puck home on the powerplay and just two minutes later the lead was extended courtesy of a Paul Windridge strike.
Steven Gunn then created a goal out of nothing to keep Fife in touch, but when Shaun Kippin made it 5-3 less than three minutes from the break, Whitley were beginning to sense it might be their night after all.
However, as the clock ticked down the visitors showed exactly why they had not lost a Northern League game to this point of the season, Andy Samuel closing the gap with only one second remaining.
In the third period Ryan Sample broke clear to make it 6-4 in the 47th minute, with Peter Zajac squeezing the puck over the line with five minutes remaining.
Tom Muir did pull one back for the Flyers at 58.54, but by then they knew that unbeaten record had gone and it was left to the Whitley fans to roar their team home.
“Right from the start to the finish, the lads were magnificent and gave everything they could give,” said jubilant Whitley coach Simon Leach after the game.
“A couple of weeks ago in Kirkcaldy I thought the difference between the sides was that Fife took their chances, but tonight when he had a chance to score we made it count; and some of the goals we scored belonged at a higher level than the Northern League.
“Our concentration levels tonight were spot on as well, apart from maybe a couple of moments, but I don’t think anyone could argue that the best side won on the night.
“We have had a very good season so far and the lads have done pretty much everything I’ve asked of them, but tonight they took that little step up and produced our best performance yet.”
The night had began badly for the Warriors when defender Ally Brummitt (hand) and Andy Thornton (food poisoning) were ruled out before the game, but Leach paid tribute to the way his side defended.
“Right from James Flavell in goal, to the four lads who played in defence and our three forward lines, everyone has done the job required of them,” he said.
“The work rate and desire were phenomenal, and we played 60 minutes of hockey against a side that could have won the title tonight; and proved we can be just as good as them if we put our minds to it.”
Leach had also asked for the Whitley supporters to be their ‘fifth line’ of the night and he was delighted with the response.
“It was an incredible atmosphere,” he said.
“Having so many Fife fans coming down to see their team possibly win the title certainly helped, but the noise the Whitley fans made certainly helped us out on the ice.”
Fife will clinch the Northern League title by beating Blackburn Hawks in Kirkcaldy on Saturday night, but then know they have another tough night when they make a swift return to Hillheads on Sunday (face-off 5pm).
Before then the Warriors are in English National league action in Telford and the coach is looking for a similar performance on both nights from his players.
“We want to end the ENL season unbeaten,” Leach said, “so will have to go out and play hard against what is usually a physical Titans side to secure that win; and then we expect a tougher battle than last Sunday when Fife call again.
“That defeat will have hurt them and the last thing they will want is to suffer another loss to us just seven days before the play-off weekend.
“For our part it is all about momentum and I will be asking the players to put in exactly the same effort that brought us victory this time.”
Following that game, the Warriors are also in action on Tuesday night when they take on the Northern Stars at Hillheads (face-off 7.30pm), but will be the away side as the Stars currently have no home ice of their own and have rented the Whitley rink for the night.