The final home league game of the NIHL North Moralee Conference campaign saw Whitley Warriors earn a hard fought 4-2 victory at home to Telford Tigers.
The result gives the Hillheads outfit a massive boost in their pursuit of an end of season play-offs spot.
Having suffered a disappointing road loss in the Tees-Tyne derby at Billingham the previous weekend, Warriors’ player-coach David Longstaff and his troops came face to face with Telford Tigers for the first time since their controversial meeting with the Shropshire outfit in December.
The fallout from that result saw NIHL officials come down hard on Warriors, with the Tynesiders being deducted two vital points in their quest to finish in the top four and make the play-off weekend in Sheffield.
With the final six league fixtures to be played on the road, everyone connected with the Warriors knew just how important victory over Telford could prove to be at the season’s end, adding pressure to an already potentially explosive clash.
Jordan Barnes made a welcome return to the ranks of the Maroon and Gold, with the power forward having missed the trip down the A19 to Billingham.
Barnes took the place of Ben Richards with the young forward failing to recover from an ankle injury picked up the previous Sunday evening. Richie Lawson resumed his position as starting netminder, with Jordan Boyle reverting to back up having deputised admirably in recent weeks.
Telford arrived at Hillheads positioned at the foot of the table but Dan Mackriel’s Tigers still harboured play-off ambitions of their own.
With a mere three points covering Telford in eighth and Warriors in the final play-off spot in fourth, an unlikely appearance at Sheffield in April remained a possibility for the Tigers, who travelled to the north east with a strong looking roster, which included Adam Brittle and Karol Jets.
Both sides began the game in cautious fashion, unwilling to present easy opportunities to their opponents.
The first shot in anger came the way of the Tigers when Slovakian import Jets was first to a loose puck to the right of the Warriors net, quickly firing off a wrist shot that lacked pace and accuracy with Lawson standing big before freezing the puck.
The home side slowly began to assert their authority on the game and took the lead with the clock showing 7:59.
Good work by Shaun Kippin on the boards saw Whitley win back possession inside the Telford zone, Kippin shielding the puck before feeding David Longstaff down low. He in turn found Callum Watson rushing in to the slot, with the winger hitting a first time effort beyond Brittle for 1-0.
It was nearly 2-0 when Kippin found himself in front of goal at ten minutes. Taking control of a bouncing puck, the Warriors centre spun before shooting, only to see the Tigers netminder dive low to deny a fine opportunity.
That save would prove a spring board for Telford to get back on level terms and when Longstaff was harshly given a two-minute slashing call, Tigers took advantage of the extra skater with Josh Hustwick scoring on the power play timed 16:08 for a 1-1 opening session.
The second period began with Whitley having a 35-second man advantage on the power play, upping the intensity from the off but finding the Telford penalty kill unwilling to give up parity.
With both teams continuing to match one another at even strength, the game was becoming a war of attrition. Both teams looked to force their opponents back and set up around the goal only to find the shooting lanes closed off for any real good scoring opportunities.
Telford looked as though they were in position to spring a swift left wing attack around the 28-minute mark. Luke Brittle in space only for Josh Maddock to superbly read the play and pole check an interception.
Harry Harley came closest to adding a second for the Maroon and Gold at 32 minutes, unleashing a slap shot from the point on the power play that slammed off the post and away from goal.
With the clock nearing 40 minutes, it was the turn of the visitors to apply pressure and an odd man rush looked to have carved open a clear opportunity only for Maddock to once more deflect the puck away from danger with his stick to set up a tense final period.
Inspired by the fans in the stands chanting the now familiar cries of ‘One Bobby Dixon’, Daniel Pye moved forward from his usual defensive position, carrying the puck into the Tigers zone before arrowing a shot high into the top right corner at 42:01.
Warriors were gaining the upper hand and starting to dictate the pattern of play more and more, but they were indebted to netminder Lawson for maintaining their lead at 45 minutes. Despite being on the penalty kill, Telford forward Adam Brittle was able to rob the Whitley D of possession on half way before skating in on goal unopposed, only for Lawson to stand tall and deny the puck entry to the net with his skate.
The pivotal moment saw Warriors regain possession following the save and just seconds after nearly being caught out the Maroon and Gold stretched out to a 3-1 lead, Kippin forcing home unmarked from the resulting power play attack timed at 45:57.
Finally exerting control on what had been a battle throughout; Whitley saved the best for last with a moment of magic from the stick of Kippin.
Moving the puck from back near his own net, the impressive Maddock managed to beat the Tigers forecheck with a pass out to Barnes near the boards. He controlled neatly before feeding the puck to in to Kippin, breaking into space at centre ice before taking aim and lashing home a vicious slap shot from just outside the Tigers blue line beyond a stunned Brittle in the Tigers goal at 54:08.
Telford managed to pull one goal back soon after with Luke Brittle notching at 55:54, but it was Whitley who were victorious at the final buzzer, recording a battling 4-2 win.
Man of the match for Warriors went to the ever industrious Martin Crammond, with the away award being bestowed upon Ben Washburn as the most impressive Telford player.
After the game Warriors’ assistant coach Dave Holland reflected on a hard earned victory for his side, believing victory could set the Warriors up for a final push towards the play-offs.
He said: “It was a big, big win for us. Everyone knows being deducted the two points has put us in a bit of a situation, and with tonight being our final home league game it was important we got a win on the board.
“We’re going to need to pick up some victories on the road over the next few weeks.
“I thought it was a very even game. Telford came at us with everything they had and travelled with a strong team, including Karol Jets and Dan Mackriel.
“The shots were even right the way through, but we’ve managed to break them down in the end and take a step forward in to the away games.
“The defence looked a lot more solid and gave us a platform. Billingham was disappointing but you’ll have ups and downs over a season.
“The league is so tight that it’ll likely go down to the wire with the points being close and so many teams trying to claim a play-off spot.
“Away from home we will need to approach games like we are the home side and try to play on the front foot. We need to concentrate on our own game
“Richie Lawson had a fantastic game, he played really well.
“Richie has had a bit of an up and down period, which sometimes you get as a player, but he was on fire tonight and will be a big player over the next few weeks.
“Mention also goes to Shaun Kippin for his second goal … Brittle never expected that from Shaun and it was a class goal to round off a memorable week for him.
“It’s all still wide open; get through the next few games and see where we are heading towards the play-offs. Play like we did tonight and we should win more games than we will lose.”