Ultimate Windows sponsored Billingham Stars

BILLINGHAM STARS ended their season on a high despite falling in their National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee playoffs semi-final to League and now Playoff Champions Solway Sharks on Saturday in Leeds.

The lowest ranked team to qualify for the Final Four showpiece event of the season, the Stars were always going to be up against it facing the dominant side of the year in the first of the semi-final ties. Billingham were missing Ben Greenhalgh and Lewis Hall from the squad, but nevertheless a strong side skated out for their biggest challenge of the season, facing a Solway side going for the League and Playoff double.

Perhaps understandably, the Stars looked nervy in the opening exchanges but were handed a powerplay opportunity in the first few minutes whilst Scott Henderson sat out a holding call. Unable to create anything meaningful, Billingham found themselves on the back foot when the Sharks returned to full strength and immediately threw bodies forward. It didn’t take long for the Stars’ resistance to break, Keiran Hair finishing a break from the neutral zone into the bottom corner in the fifth minute to get the number one seeds off to the start they wanted. To their credit, Billingham responded in the right way and Solway netminder Calum Hepburn found himself in the thick of the action with a shoulder save from Michael Elder in the seventh minute. Seconds later Callum Wilkinson shocked the favourites when his backhand shot went over Hepburn for the equaliser and no less than the Stars deserved. Spurred back into action, the Scots began to build momentum again through the midpoint of the period. Captain Struan Tonnar eventually moved them ahead in the 13th minute with a top corner effort, before Euan Anderson increased the gap with the simplest of tap-ins in the 16th minute, Billingham netminder Thomas Brown having kicked out an initial Peter Gápa shot into his path.

A cagier second session followed with the Stars more successful in shutting down their opponents and taking away their shooting lanes. It didn’t go all to plan however, in the 30th minute the Teessiders had not long returned to full strength after a cross checking penalty to James Moss had expired when an unmarked Henderson fired into the roof of Brown’s net. It would have been easy for Billingham to roll over at this point, but they stuck to the game plan and were rewarded in the 36th minute when Chris Sykes pushed the puck under Hepburn to bring the gap back to two at the end of the period.

The Sharks were in no mood to let their advantage slip with the final in sight however, and just 35 seconds into the third stanza they put daylight between themselves and battling Billingham when Gápa found the far corner with Brown covering his near post. A classic counterattacking move in the 44th minute put the game to bed for the men from Dumfries, Gápa squaring to Anderson for the sixth and no way back for the Stars. Billingham didn’t give it up and piled the pressure on, but in truth their shooting chances were limited and Solway controlled the closing stages comfortably enough to book their place in the final.

Man of the Match for Billingham was Tommy Spraggon.

In the second semi-final, Whitley Warriors edged out Solihull Barons 4-1 to set up the expected final between the League’s top two sides. As has been the case all season, Solway were too much for the Tynesiders in Sunday’s final, 5-2 the score and the trophy another in the Scots’ large cabinet.

An interview package will be available via BigRedMachine Radio during the week, featuring Stephen Foster, Michael Elder and Martin Grubb.


Weekend Results:

NIHL(N)1 Playoffs Final Four – Semi-Finals:

Solway Sharks 6 Billingham Stars 2

Whitley Warriors 4 Solihull Barons 1

NIHL(N)1 Playoffs Final Four – Grand Final:

Solway Sharks 5 Whitley Warriors 2


Image gallery available here courtesy of Colin Edwards, CJE Photos.