Whitley Warriors progress to the final of the NIHL North Cup after achieving a 13-5 semi-final win against local rivals Billingham Stars over two legs. After securing a 5-2 win at The Forum on Saturday, the Warriors claimed an 8-3 victory at Hillheads on Sunday to progress to the next stage of the competition.
Making the trip to The Forum on Saturday with nineteen skaters and netminders Richie Lawson and Jordan Boyle, the Warriors were missing forwards Adam Finlinson, Anthony Wetherell and defenceman Craig Johnson as they lined up against Billingham who had one skater less than their local rivals.
Shortly after facing off against the Stars, Whitley found themselves on the back foot as Alternate Captain Jordan Barnes was shown to the sin bin for a slashing offence on 1:50. Demonstrating the effectiveness of their penalty kill, the Warriors maintained the deadlock and returned to full strength to test netminder Thomas Brown who pulled off an excellent double save to prevent the visitors from snatching the lead. Moments later, Billingham edged ahead in the semi-final, forward Craig Thurston stabbing the puck past Lawson on 4:31 following the netminder’s efforts to make a save. Spurred into action after conceding, the Warriors increased their efforts on the Stars’ net in a bid to equalise, left winger Ben Campbell, Captain Dean Holland and Latvian defenceman Rolands Gritāns amongst those attempting to draw level. Just after the midpoint of the period, both teams ran into penalty trouble after a boarding offence from Barnes on nineteen-year-old forward Joseph Dowdle prompted a furious reaction from defenceman Matthew Campbell. Though landing a punch as the two went toe-to-toe, Campbell lost his balance to cut the fight short. In addition to penalties of 2+2 for fighting for both players, Barnes received a match penalty for boarding whilst defenceman Campbell incurred a further two minutes for instigation. A two-minute roughing penalty for defenceman Andy Finn left the Stars shorthanded on 11:58 and Whitley were quick to make the most of their additional skater, scoring just fourteen seconds into their power play when Gritāns buried the puck past Brown to make it 1-1 on 12:12 courtesy of left winger Campbell and blue liner Harry Harley. Gaining momentum, the Warriors continued to cause problems for the home team and their efforts paid off when Campbell slipped past the Stars’ defence to slot home on 16:44. Two seconds after play resumed, forward Lewis Crisp incurred two minutes for slashing and, though the Warriors could not capitalise, Whitley extended their lead to 3-1 when Harley beat Brown seven seconds before the first interval courtesy of Holland.
Picking up from where they left off, Whitley made it 4-1 less than two minutes into the second stanza when a speculative shot from Holland hit the target, forward Callum Queenan assisting. With the margin between the teams widening, the game lacked some of the pace of the first period, though the Warriors continued to outshoot the Stars who gave Lawson little to do at the other end of the ice. Striving to keep possession in their offensive zone, Whitley fired in shot after shot at Brown who dealt with the offensive threat posed by the Warriors but, with the period a far closer one than the opening twenty minutes, play grew scrappy, leaving the score line at 4-1 going into the third stanza.
Recognising their need to get back into the game, the Stars scored on 41:24 as Captain Michael Elder buried the puck to reduce his team’s deficit to two goals. Sixty nine seconds later, Billingham went shorthanded when defenceman Campbell was punished for a tripping offence. The Warriors were again dangerous on the power play and Holland collected his second goal of the evening, forward Phil Edgar and defenceman Harley setting up their captain on 43:32 to make it 5-2. Shortly afterwards, Edgar was sidelined for slashing to give Billingham a power play but, unable to make it count, the Stars remained three goals adrift of their rivals. Dominating in offence with 23 shots on Billingham’s net to the 9 shots managed by the Stars, Whitley were certainly not short of chances but could not find a way past Brown in the latter stages of the game, the netminder pulling off an outstanding save to prevent Campbell from adding to the scoreboard with just thirty nine seconds remaining. An unpunished hit from forward James Moss on Holland then saw the Warriors’ captain receive treatment with eleven seconds left on the clock but this proved to be the last of the action, the final buzzer confirming Whitley’s 5-2 lead in the first leg of their NIHL North Cup semi-final.
Shots on goal
Craig Thurston (1+0), Michael Elder (1+0), Tomáš Rubeš (0+1), Chris Sykes (0+1), James Moss (0+1), Callum Davies (0+1)
Dean Holland (2+2), Harry Harley (1+2), Ben Campbell (1+1), Rolands Gritāns (1+0), Phil Edgar (0+1), Callum Queenan (0+1)
Man of the Match
Stars: Thomas Brown
Warriors: Dean Holland
Taking a 5-2 lead into the second leg of their NIHL North Cup semi-final, Whitley Warriors boasted a strong line-up of twenty skaters, though they were without skilled forward Adam Finlinson and suspended Alternate Captain Jordan Barnes. The Stars, by comparison, had a considerably shorter bench of fifteen skaters, with Alternate Captain Callum Davies, Czech forward Daniel Silar and defenceman Andy Finn on the absentee list for the visitors.
Gaining possession in the early stages of the game, the Warriors sought to test shot stopper Mark Turnbull as Captain Dean Holland collected the puck with a view to pick out Kippin who missed his chance to tap home. Billingham battled on in their efforts to challenge at the other end of the ice, with forwards Craig Thurston, Tomáš Rubeš and James Moss amongst those setting their sights on the net. Quick play from left winger Ben Campbell and hardworking forward Ross Murray then troubled the Stars’ defence further before Kippin tried a wraparound which came close to finding a way past Turnbull. Eventually, the Warriors’ perseverance paid off when Holland scrapped his way through Billingham’s defence from Turnbull’s right to place the puck beyond the netminder on 8:28, forward Callum Queenan and defenceman Harry Harley assisting. Soon after, Billingham’s young forward Dylan Hehir briefly tangled with defenceman Josh Maddock along the boards as the Star zipped down the wing and into his offensive zone. The Warriors were then dealt a bench minor for too many men on 11:02 which was served by forward Callum Watson. Whilst on the penalty kill, Whitley were able to break away, Campbell easing past Billingham’s defence to fire at Turnbull who made the save. Countering, the Stars saw an opportunity to equalise when the puck landed at Lawson’s left post with Whitley’s defence scrambling to clear but Czech forward Rubeš fired wide of the net and the Warriors were on hand to block a second shot, seizing possession in the process. Holland came close to accomplishing a second goal when he outsmarted Turnbull by feigning a move around the back of his net before attempting to jab the puck around the right post. As the period came to a close, Billingham finally drew level through eighteen-year-old forward Callum Wilkinson whose long range shot beat Lawson to make it 1-1 ahead of the second period. Striving to recover their lead, the Warriors threw everything into their attacking play and Latvian defenceman Rolands Gritāns worked to thread a path through Billingham’s defensive zone only to clash with Captain Michael Elder to see the duo respectively incur minor penalties for elbowing and interference with just four seconds remaining in the period.
Returning to the ice for the middle period, Whitley increased their offensive efforts in a bid to regain a lead in the second leg, Campbell, Queenan and Harley amongst those proving particularly problematic whilst the Stars’ chances grew to be few and far between. Murray then came close to placing the puck beneath Turnbull but struck his pads instead. A slashing penalty for forward Niall Ryder on 29:12 saw Whitley placed on the penalty kill but just nine seconds later, Stars’ defenceman Ben Davison joined him in the sin bin to level the playing field. Maintaining their pressure on Billingham’s net, the Warriors made it 2-1 seventy seven seconds later as Harley struck an unassisted shot to Turnbull’s left. This was quickly followed by some excellent link-up play between Gritāns and Queenan who buried the puck with ease to give his side a 3-1 lead. As play moved into Whitley’s defensive zone again, Murray battled along the boards in an effort to maintain possession despite losing his stick but the puck was pounced on by the Stars, allowing blue liner James Hellens to fire over Lawson’s left shoulder to make it 3-2 on 35:11. Forty one seconds later, Whitley restored their two-goal lead in the game, this time Watson rounding the net to sweep the puck past Turnbull. Less than three minutes later, the Warriors extended their lead to 5-2 as Harley fired into the roof of Billingham’s net on 38:06 to end the period as the far more dominant team, having tested the Stars with 36 shots to the 6 that Billingham managed at the other end of the ice.
Just under two minutes into the third period, Whitley found the net for a sixth time as Campbell worked well to pick out Canadian forward Phil Edgar in front of goal before forward Ross Douglass lifted the puck over Turnbull on 44:06 following neat build-up play from fellow forwards Watson and Ben Richards. Player-Coach David Longstaff then replaced Lawson with backup netminder Jordan Boyle to give him some ice time with the score line 7-2 in Whitley’s favour; 12-4 on aggregate. Shortly afterwards, Holland came close to scoring but found himself dragged to the ice to the right of Turnbull’s net and, whilst the Stars claimed possession following this unpunished misdemeanour, Billingham’s forward Jack Emerson was soon sidelined for tripping to present Whitley with a power play. The Warriors found the net just nine seconds into their advantage as Gritāns added an eighth to the scoreboard in style with assists from Holland and Campbell on 50:21. Billingham called a timeout in consequence and the side reaped the rewards of this team talk when Thurston and Rubeš set up forward James Moss who slotted home on 56:28 to make it 8-3. Just over a minute later, Ryder clashed with forward Chris Sykes to earn himself two minutes in the sin bin for slashing but the Warriors killed this penalty and returned to full strength to secure their 8-3 victory over their local rivals.
Winning 13-5 on aggregate, Whitley Warriors will now take on Murrayfield Racers in the NIHL North Cup final.
Shots on goal
Harry Harley (2+1), Dean Holland (1+3), Callum Watson (1+2), Rolands Gritāns (1+1), Callum Queenan (1+1), Ross Douglass (1+0), Phil Edgar (1+0), Ben Campbell (0+2), Ben Richards (0+1)
James Moss (1+1), Callum Wilkinson (1+0), James Hellens (1+0),Tomáš Rubeš (0+2),Chris Sykes (0+1), Michael Elder (0+1), Craig Thurston (0+1)
Man of the Match
Warriors: Callum Queenan
Stars: Mark Turnbull