A bumper crowd at Hillheads on Sunday evening saw Billingham Stars edge Whitley Warriors in a nine-goal NIHL North Cup thriller.
A double from Callum Watson and goals from Jordan Barnes and Dean Holland were not enough for the home side on a night where they helped raise donations and awareness for the family of Frankie Sherwood, a local youngster suffering from an aggressive form of child cancer.
A dramatic late equaliser had seen Warriors pick up their first point of the league season in a 3-3 draw last time out against Telford Tigers, with fans and players alike hoping the result could be used as a springboard heading into the home clash against their local rivals.
Having lost both their cup games so far against Solway Sharks and Blackburn Hawks, Warriors knew defeat would seriously jeopardise their hopes of success in the competition.
They received a timely boost to their forward lines with Callum Watson available, but unfortunately for player-coach David Longstaff, one of his outstanding players from the previous weekend, Harry Harley, was missing and his place on the blueline was taken by the surprise return of Rob Wilson.
Billingham made the relatively short journey up the A19 with a strong roster. A disappointing 2015-16 league campaign saw Stars miss out on a place in the end of season play-offs leading to a summer of renewed investment for a team dubbed as ‘cup specialists’.
Swedish import Dennis Bostrom returned to the Forum for a second season and was joined by compatriot Daniel Palmebjork, whilst former Warriors Scott Cooper and Jack Watkins also linked up with Terry Ward’s men.
Despite renewed optimism on Teesside of an improved showing, Stars arrived at Hillheads on the back of a worrying third period collapse the previous week when having led 3-1 with 20 minutes to play, they conceded three unanswered goals before losing in overtime to Solway Sharks in cup action.
With the ceremonial puck drop carried out by VIP guest Frankie Sherwood, the action began in typical derby fashion with no quarter asked and none given.
The game sprung in to life with two minutes on the clock with clear openings being crafted by both sides.
Firstly Callum Watson found himself breaking free of the final Stars defenceman, using his speed to collect an ambitious forward pass before working James Flavell in the Stars net with a low wrist shot saved by the pads.
Billingham looked for a swift response and immediately moved the puck down the rink allowing import Palmebjork to take aim, but with Lawson closing the angle the Swede could only fire wide of the goal.
Gradually the Stars started to apply more pressure and it was not long until Warriors ran in to penalty trouble.
Having saw their first two opportunities on the power play quelled by a well drilled penalty kill, Stars struck at the third time of asking with the man advantage. Whilst Craig Johnson sat a two-minute penalty for high sticks, Billingham’s extra man paid dividends, Palmebjork skipping into the slot before tapping home the rebound of his initial shot for a power play marker at 13:13.
The ever dangerous Watson once again found himself in a position to get his team back level, using his electric speed only to see Flavell stand tall and ensure Stars took the opening period 1-0.
Having spent time during the interval discussing a route back into the contest, Whitley slipped further behind within two minutes of the restart.
Unable to win a face-off to the left of Richie Lawson’s goal, the Warriors D could not locate the increasingly dangerous Palmebjork who picked up the loose puck and his shot went high and beyond an unsighted Lawson.
Warriors were more than matching the work rate of their opponents, throwing bodies in the way to keep Stars in sight on the scoreboard.
With the clock showing 30 minutes and exactly half way through the contest, Warriors had their netminder to thank during a sustained two-minute onslaught with Lawson blocking and turning away a barrage of shots.
His efforts had given his team a chance and his reward came with a Jordan Barnes goal, the forward controlling in acres of space before skating in and clinically finishing, with the assist from Niall Simpson.
Back in the game and their physicality starting to unsettle Billingham, the Maroon and Gold levelled the score at 38:40 when Callum Watson finally got the better of Flavell, taking hold of a Dan Pye pass before calmly sliding the puck underneath the Stars netminder on the backhand.
Just as it looked likely that scores would be locked with one period to play, Stars regained the lead when Tom Keeley took aim and hit a ferocious slap shot from the point with the outstanding Lawson getting a glove on the shot but heartbreakingly unable to prevent the puck from slowly crossing the line.
Just as the second had started disappointingly for the home team, the opening exchanges of the third period proved to be just as cruel to the hosts.
A mere 15 seconds in and lady luck showed her allegiance to the men in red when Michael Elder’s attempted poke check flew up off his stick and found its way into the net behind a bewildered Lawson.
Longstaff’s players could have been forgiven for thinking it was not meant to be, but still they never gave up. The player-coach saw an opportunity come and go when he was unable to get an instinctive shot away, but Whitley were back to within one at 44:13 when Watson was able to strike first time after a drop pass from Longstaff for 4-3.
A renewed hope was sensed in the stands but Stars were keeping themselves just about out of trouble and the game defining moment fell in their favour at 54:58 when Dennis Bostrom ensured an unassailable lead with what would prove the game winning fifth goal for his team.
Warriors needed to strike back quickly and Watson saw his chance of a hat-trick denied by the crossbar. With just over a minute remaining, Warriors pulled netminder Lawson for the extra skater following a timeout, and just like the previous weekend, the move paid off instantly. Dean Holland smashing in a slap shot for 5-4 just six seconds upon resumption of play.
But Stars held on to claim a hard earned cup victory.
Man of the match for Warriors went to Jordan Barnes.
After the game, Warriors player-coach Longstaff said: “I’m pretty pleased with the effort if not the result. We’re short again ... I might sound a bit like a broken record but the imports are the difference every week.
“Bostrom gets the game winning goal and their other important, Palmebjork, gets two and man of the match.
“We’re doing everything we can but we’re just not quite there. Players are missing through one reason or another, but the lads are battling hard and as a coach that’s all I can ask for.
“There will be tough nights ahead, tonight wasn’t one of those nights but we have to keep going when they do come along.
“Rob [Wilson] was able to help us out at short notice, Richie Lawson has been feeling unwell and struggled during the intervals, but he’s stood up and been great for us tonight.
“I genuinely believe the only difference between us and the other teams are the imports. They’re the ones ripping up the league and making the difference.
“We have players turning up late from work and playing when they’re unwell; giving up their time whilst other clubs can pay their players. Despite the results I’m proud of them.
“Tonight was also fantastic to see such a large crowd come along and not only support the team but also support Frankie Sherwood and his family.
“I believe the rink management have made a donation and both sets of fans have paid to come in to watch the game and still donate to a good cause.
“If we can help raise awareness, and help raise funds, that’s great.
“All in all a positive night without quite getting the result we wanted.”