Whitley Warriors suffered an agonising 4-3 overtime loss to Solway Sharks in the NIHL North Cup at Hillheads on Sunday evening.
Lining up with forward Ross Murray and defencemen Harry Harley, Craig Johnson and Dan Pye, who were all missing from last weekend’s encounter with Dundee, the Warriors confronted the Sharks’ seventeen skaters who had made the trip alongside netminders Gary Russell and Aaron Forsyth.
Demonstrating remarkable intensity from faceoff which went unrivalled by the Sharks, Whitley powered through their offensive zone to repeatedly pepper shot stopper Russell who remained composed to catch forward Callum Queenan’s early attempt before seeing off a long range shot from Harley and quashing left winger Ben Campbell’s efforts to open his team’s account. With Whitley rapidly changing lines to maintain their pace, Canadian forward Phil Edgar worked hard to weave his way through the visitors’ defence but could not find the target whilst Murray appeared keen to grab a goal against his former club but without success. Unrelenting, the Warriors eventually reaped the rewards of their dominance in the early stages of the period, Alternate Captain Jordan Barnes amongst those screening Russell, allowing Johnson to fire an unassisted blue line shot past the netminder to make it 1-0 on 5:25. With Solway’s attacking play sparse, the Warriors’ intensity persisted, the outfit applying their speed and skill to make life very difficult for the Sharks. As such, it was no surprise when Whitley doubled their lead on 11:26, this time forward Callum Watson pouncing on Johnson’s rebounded shot to make a pass to Edgar who tapped home. Less than three minutes later, ‘D’ man Josh Maddock incurred the first penalty of the contest following an interference call but Whitley’s defensive work on their penalty kill was just as effective as their attacking play and the side even found time to test Russell though the advantage was with their opposition. Comfortable in their 2-0 lead as Solway struggled to bring netminder Jordan Boyle into the action, the Warriors showed no signs of letting up, Captain Dean Holland amongst those challenging Russell who again kept his team in the game. In the final minute of the period, Watson clashed with forward Gordon Horne to earn a minor penalty for holding in addition to the duo’s two-minute roughing penalties. This placed Solway on a power play but Whitley remained in control as Edgar raced towards Russell’s net to force a hooking offence from Captain Struan Tonnar eleven seconds later. This awarded the Canadian a penalty shot which he coolly slotted to Russell’s left to give his team a 3-0 lead at the first interval.
Beginning the second period far more wearily than the first as they saw out the remainder of their penalty kill, the Warriors were forced to defend and ‘D’ man Pye took control of the situation to steer the puck from his zone after some frantic efforts to clear the danger. Though the Sharks increased their attacking play in the second period, Whitley were certainly not short of chances going forwards, Campbell firing at Russell to see the rebounded puck fall dangerously close to the net. A long range shot from Harley chimed the bar and forward Ben Richards attempted to grab a fourth for his side but his shot unfortunately flew wide of its mark. Keeping Solway firmly in the game, Russell gave Martin Grubb’s men the confidence they needed and the Sharks began to angle for a breakaway goal, young defenceman Liam Stenton amongst those trying his luck. The Warriors were then placed on the power play when Stenton was sidelined for tripping on 26:19 but Whitley did not make the most of their advantage, initially building on their passing play in their defensive zone which somewhat hindered their creativity with the additional skater. Following Solway’s successful penalty kill, Tonnar and forward Iain Bowie were a constant threat for the Sharks, Bowie spinning with the puck at speed and releasing through Whitley’s crowded defensive zone in an effort to find the target. With Solway creeping back into the game, it was little surprise that the side eventually snatched the goal they were searching for, Finn Jaakko Heiskanen turning the puck into Boyle’s net courtesy of Bowie on 33:47. This goal replenished the Sharks’ confidence and thus proved to be the turning point of the encounter as the outfit increasingly lingered at the edge of Whitley’s defensive zone in search of a breakaway. Remaining sharp to ensure they did not concede a second goal before the interval, the Warriors were relieved to head in with a 3-1 lead.
Keen to match the performance of their first period, Whitley looked to extend their lead with Campbell, Edgar and Holland amongst those striving to create a goal for the home team. However, Russell was unyielding between the pipes after a strong second period and his defence were far quicker to pounce on the puck and counter. With the game slowly swinging in favour of Solway, the Warriors began to find themselves on the back foot and it showed as Edgar struggled to remove the puck from his defensive zone, only for forward Lewis Houston to gain possession and pass to Slovakian left winger Peter Gápa who successfully set up dexterous forward Scott Henderson to reduce his team’s deficit to a single goal on 47:50. The vulnerability of Whitley’s lead now undeniably clear, Solway took just forty seconds to level the scoring, this time Gápa carving a path through the home team’s defence to beat Boyle with an unassisted shot on 48:30. The score line 3-3, Whitley were hugely disappointed to have given up their three-goal lead and called a timeout, returning with some hard-hitting, physical play for Solway as they looked to grab a winning goal. Latvian defenceman Rolands Gritāns curled a path through the Sharks’ defensive zone to close in on Russell’s net but his shot could not surpass the netminder. Campbell battled for the puck in a similar fashion and attempted a wraparound but was hounded by Solway’s defencemen who swarmed to help Russell keep the puck from the net. A tripping penalty for Watson on 52:37 then placed Whitley on the penalty kill and the outfit threw themselves into defence to ensure the Sharks could not capitalise. With time fast running out, Queenan was bundled to the ice without consequence much to the Warriors’ frustration and despite both teams frantically trying to bag themselves a winning goal, neither could edge the game in regulation time.
A five minute period of three-on-three overtime got underway and Whitley maintained possession well whilst trying to snatch a winner, Campbell, Edgar and Harley linking up in an attempt to outwit the Sharks. Creating space for his teammates, Gritāns tried a long range shot which did not have the desired impact and Watson eventually lost possession, allowing Heiskanen to test Boyle at the other end of the ice. Gápa then gained an opportunity to breakaway from Whitley’s defence but could not bury his shot to leave the period goalless.
Penalty shots ensued and Campbell stepped up for Whitley but played the puck behind himself to miss his chance whilst Bowie netted in return. Edgar calmly fired past Russell and Gápa managed the same for the Sharks before Gritāns expertly buried the puck to level the scoring. It was Heiskanen who had the final say however, the Finn finding the target to seal his team’s 4-3 cup victory which leaves Solway five points ahead of the Warriors at the top of the NIHL North Cup group.
Shots on goal
Phil Edgar (2+0), Craig Johnson (1+1), Callum Watson (0+1)
Jaakko Heiskanen (2+0), Peter Gápa (1+1), Scott Henderson (1+0), Iain Bowie (0+1), Lewis Houston (0+1)
Man of the Match
Warriors: Dean Holland
Sharks: Gary Russell