Final Four Preview: Stars Head to Leeds
BILLINGHAM STARS make an unexpected journey down to Leeds this weekend as the surprise package of the National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee playoffs, a comprehensive victory over third seeds Widnes Wild last weekend securing them a spot at the end-of-season Final Four showpiece event.
The Stars have nothing to lose in tomorrow afternoon’s semi-final against League Champions Solway Sharks, a team that have proved their calibre over the course of the campaign and hot favourites for the playoff crown. Solway are targeting their second trophy of the season, their only ‘failure’ in yet another silverware-laden campaign being the Moralee Cup. As consistent as they are talented, the Sharks boast a line-up that few can compete with under the watchful eye of GB Under 20s Head Coach Martin Grubb. Whilst their march to another League title was unrelenting, it was not quite perfect and the Scots have shown moments of vulnerability. An early defeat at Solihull Barons was perhaps a warning to the Sharks they they might not have it all their own way and they responded by going on a 15-game unbeaten run in the League, including that 9-0 demolition job on nearest challengers Whitley Warriors on Tyneside in January. Their run finally came to an end in somewhat surprising fashion when they lost by the odd goal in 15 at basement side Nottingham Lions in February, but by then the title was all but theirs and since then they’ve not dropped another point. Solway faced the Lions again in last weekend’s first round match-up, but Nottingham could not repeat their previous heroics and the Sharks skated out as comfortable 14-2 winners on aggregate. They now look to get past the Stars – who they have beaten six times this season in League and Cup competitions – to make Sunday's final.
Billingham are on a high after last weekend went better than even the most optimistic of Stars fans could have hoped. Underdogs to make the Final Four, they put Widnes Wild to the sword at the Forum on Saturday night with a dominant 8-1 scoreline then held on comfortably on Merseyside the following evening to take the tie 10-4 on aggregate. Making the Final Four is certainly the icing on the cake for a team expected to struggle with a young and inexperienced squad at the start of the season. The way that the younger members have stepped up to the intensity of senior hockey has surprised many and is testament to the hard work of the coaching team and also the mentoring from the ‘older heads’ in the team – this weekend is just reward for a season that has surpassed expectations and bodes well for future years. The Stars should be at full strength to face the League Champions tomorrow afternoon, with just Lewis Hall unavailable.
General Manager Allen Flavell is delighted to have made it to the showpiece event of the season, and was keen to stress that his Stars are not there to make up the numbers:
“What a weekend we had last weekend! Just when you think you’ve seen everything from the Stars this season, the boys came up with the best performance and the best result possible. We fully deserve our place in the Final Four, and even though we are once again the underdogs, we’re in it to win it. That has to be our mentality now we’re here, we face the best team in the League in the semi-final, but I think we proved last Saturday what we are capable of producing and on that form I’d say we can beat anyone. We want that trophy, and we will leave everything out there on the ice to get it.”
The Stars travel to Leeds tomorrow afternoon for the playoffs semi-final against Solway Sharks, face off 4.30pm. Should they get past the Sharks, the Grand Final will face off at 5.30pm on Sunday playing the winners of tomorrow evening’s second semi-final between Whitley Warriors and Solihull Barons.
NIHL(N)1 Playoffs Final Four – Semi-Finals:
Solway Sharks v Billingham Stars, Saturday 4.30pm
Whitley Warriors v Solihull Barons, Saturday 7pm
NIHL(N)1 Playoffs Final Four – Grand Final, Sunday 5.30pm