A youthful Whitley Warriors team went down 6-1 to Solway Sharks in the NIHL North Cup on Sunday evening, despite putting up a brave fight and showing plenty of determination to record a positive result in the final game on home ice this season.
With the score 3-1 heading in to the final period, Warriors were unable to find a route back and eventually succumbed to a score that failed to reflect a whole hearted battle from the Maroon and Gold.
The previous evening had seen Warriors travel to Shropshire to take on Telford Tigers in league action, anxiously seeking a morale boosting victory to enhance the chances of the club finishing in the top four and securing a play-off position.
Goals from Andre Payette and David Longstaff saw Whitley take a 2-0 lead inside the opening ten minutes only for Telford to come back strong and notch three unanswered strikes to lead 3-2 at the first interval.
Things went from bad to worse early in the second period when the home side added a fourth goal, but Callum Watson made it 4-3 when he found the net from close range towards the end of the middle session, giving the away side hope of a comeback.
But Warriors found it tough to create any clear chances and the game was sewn up for Tigers in the final ten minutes with Callum Bowley scoring a hat-trick to complete a disappointing 7-3 road loss.
Defeat means Whitley must now rely on other results going their way to have a hope of play-off action in April.
On Sunday night, and with nothing but pride to play for against Solway Sharks in the cup, Whitley player-coach David Longstaff chose to use the game as an opportunity to give more ice time to younger members of the roster.
In what would be only his third senior appearance for the Maroon and Gold, forward Jamie Ord was selected to make a home debut in front of friends and family at Hillheads.
Another Warrior youth graduate, Anthony Wetherall, was also included in the line up, and with Richie Lawson rested between the pipes, Jordan Boyle started as netminder.
Captain Dean Holland was also given a break, with popular power forward Jordan Barnes being entrusted to skipper the team. Longstaff elected not to ice, instead taking up a coaching role from the bench.
Solway have unquestionably been this season’s outstanding team in all competitions, with Martin Grubb’s charges already crowned NIHL North Moralee Conference Division One champions adding to their NIHL North Cup success.
The Dumfries-based Sharks arrived on Tyneside full of confidence having eased past Solihull Barons 4-1 the night before on home ice and being unbeaten thus far against their hosts throughout the 2016-17 season.
North east native James Hutchinson took his place once more on the Solway blue line with classy import Juraj Senko also available to make an appearance.
Whitley began brightly, looking to roll through four lines and give everyone adequate ice time to impress.
The visitors were handed a man advantage when Alan Yarrow was given a penalty for interference, and just moments later Solway were handed a five on three powerplay with Barnes also adjudged to have sinned in the eyes of referee Wardell.
Warriors’ penalty kill was digging in admirably around their own goal, limiting Solway to shots from the blue line despite their numerical advantage.
As Yarrow returned to the ice giving Whitley another defensive body, Payette seemed to have legally thwarted a move down the Sharks left only for referee Wardell to again call against the Warriors and hand Payette a two-minute roughing minor.
Solway were looking to be in danger of over playing and wasting their powerplay opportunity when Barnes returned to bolster the Whitley numbers, but with Payette looking on from the penalty box, Solway finally grabbed the opening goal.
A fine block from Jordan Boyle saw the netminder sprawled on the ice, but as the puck fell loose Daniel Abercrombie tapped home.
Warriors continued to run through their lines with short, sharp shifts, maintaining an intensity to their game, but they fell 2-0 behind when Duncan Speirs wristed home an effort from the face-off circle at 16.20.
The middle session began much like the first with Whitley continuing to use their full compliment of players and force pressure back on to the Sharks D.
Warriors created arguably their first real gilt edged chance two minutes in with good work from Martin Crammond forcing a turn over deep in the Sharks zone. The puck fell invitingly on the stick of Payette, the Canadian controlling before attempting to force in at the near post only for Hepburn to stand tall in his goal and divert the effort wide.
As the home team continued to force mistake sout of the Solway players, confidence was visibly growing amongst the ranks.
Barnes was becoming more influential on proceedings and almost notched a picture book goal at 31 minutes, collecting the puck next to his own net before going coast to coast and firing a shot hard and low that needed saving by the pads of Hepburn.
With the ice continuing to tilt towards the Solway goal, Warriors finally got the goal their play had deserved with Callum Watson latching on to a puck forward from Liam Smedley, skating inside and lifting a back handed effort high beyond Hepburn for 2-1 timed 35.37.
Despite Warriors clearly being in the ascendency, Solway were keeping Boyle honest with efforts from quick breakout plays, and Sharks notched their third goal of the night when Duncan Speirs found space in front of the net and fired in for a 3-1 scoreline timed 38.52.
In a pre-planned move, Warriors made a change between the pipes for the final period, with Rory Dunn taking over netminding duties from Boyle.
It was not long before the experienced Dunn was called upon to make a fine save, batting away a fierce shot from inside the slot by Stevie Moore.
Home debutant Ord nearly found himself in a position to open his account, skating round a static Andrews on the Sharks D but seeing his attempted shot blocked by the legs of the retreating James Hutchinson.
A game that had been competitive but on the whole well mannered, burst in to life at 52.04 when Solway found their way to goal for a fourth. Scott Henderson skating down the right and shooting the puck below the blocker of Dunn.
As the visitors began to celebrate, Warriors’ alternate captain Shaun Kippin seemed to take exception to the actions of a Solway player, sparking off an altercation between the two-sides that resulted in Kippin being handed a ten-minute misconduct penalty for incitement, a game misconduct and a further match penalty from the officials.
The same incident had also seen Payette become involved in the fracas, and he received a match penalty for fighting leading to the Canadian being ejected from the game.
As Kippin and Payette made their way back to the home dressing room, experienced winger Yarrow was also handed out punishment for his actions, with ‘The Rocket; receiving a ten-minute misconduct for incitement.
The resulting period of play following the incident left Solway enjoying a prolonged five on three powerplay, and they put to bed their dogged opponents by striking on a further two occasions.
Marc Fowley scoring twice for a 6-1 score line that seemed harsh on a young Warriors team that had continued to apply pressure on their visitors, but in the end it was Solway who took their share of the cup spoils having made the most of the opportunities to fall their way.
Man of the match for Whitley Warriors went to Watson, with the man of the match for Solway Sharks being named as Fowley.
Whitley Warriors thanked everyone connected with the club. From the players and staff on and off the ice, to the loyal fans who attend on match night, for the continued support and efforts throughout the season.