Weekend Preview: Stars v Wild 160422 170422
BILLINGHAM STARS will go into this weekend’s first round of the National Ice Hockey League (N) Moralee playoffs knowing they have nothing to lose as the underdogs against third-placed finishers Widnes Wild.
One of the surprise teams of the season, Widnes have had a highly successful first campaign in Division 1 regardless of the result this weekend. A third-place finish was higher than many predicted, and they have silverware in the cabinet already with a most unexpected triumph in the Moralee Cup. Wild have found the recipe that works for them, picking up experienced campaigners from higher leagues such as Thomas Stubley, Chris Wilcox and Liam Charnock who have all played at National League level, and adding talented prospects such as arguably the League’s best netminder in Harrison Walker. Add in a consistent goalscoring import in Vlads Vulkanovs and a coach who knows how to get the best out of his bench in Richard Haggar and it should have been no surprise to anyone that Widnes have done as well as they have. Now they have their sights on playoff glory, Billingham standing in their way of an appearance at the Final Four end-of-season showpiece in Leeds next weekend. Wild have every reason to feel confident having come out on top in all four games between the two sides this season, and will fear no one should they reach Leeds.
For altogether different reasons, the Stars can look back on a highly successful season themselves. Sixth place may not have been a result for Billingham teams of old, but this year’s approach – bringing through the younger players with just a core group of seniors to support and nurture the talent – has seen the squad step up in a way few thought possible and laid the groundwork for seasons to come. The team have played committed, skilful hockey since the opening weeks of the season and confounded the doubters who predicted a miserable year and far fewer than the 11 wins that the team recorded. To get past Widnes and to the final weekend in Leeds would be a fantastic achievement and testament to the hard work that the team have put in all campaign long. After playing short-benched for the only time this season last weekend at local rivals Whitley Warriors, this weekend the Stars should only be without defenceman Ben Greenhalgh who sustained a lower body injury playing for the Under-18s last Saturday.
General Manager Allen Flavell knows his Stars have it all to do this weekend but is certain his side will give everything to cause an upset and make the finals:
“Yes we are very much the underdogs this weekend, but we have shown – as have teams throughout the League all season – that on our night we can give anyone a game. If we can put a performance in over 120 minutes then we have every chance – that’s all that has been missing in recent games, we’ve not quite put a full shift in but when we do we know we’re a match for anyone. Widnes have had our number all year so perhaps they may feel a little overconfident, but it’s up to us to exploit that. We need to get our noses in front in the home leg at the Forum as they will feel far more comfortable in front of their own fans on Sunday. Whatever the result, come Sunday night, I know the boys will be able to look back on this season with justifiable pride – they’ve done everything we asked of them and more, I couldn’t be prouder.”
Billingham’s first round playoff series against Widnes Wild starts at the Forum tomorrow evening, face off 5.30pm. The second leg is in Widnes on Sunday evening, face off 7.30pm. Tickets for tomorrow's game are priced at £12 adults, £7.50 concessions, £35 family [2+2].
NIHL(N)1 Playoffs First Round:
Billingham Stars v Widnes Wild, Saturday 5.30pm
Blackburn Hawks v Whitley Warriors, Saturday 6pm
Solway Sharks v Nottingham Lions, Saturday 7pm
Sheffield Scimitars v Solihull Barons, Saturday 7.30pm
Whitley Warriors v Blackburn Hawks, Sunday 5pm
Solihull Barons v Sheffield Scimitars, Sunday 5.30pm
Nottingham Lions v Solway Sharks, Sunday 7pm
Widnes Wild v Billingham Stars, Sunday 7.30pm