The Building Craftsmen Dumfries Solway Sharks saw their last weekend of league competition safe in the knowledge they had already secured the league trophy, but keen to maintain their 100% home record.
Local rivals and second-placed Whitley Warriors travelled to the Dumfries Ice Bowl on Saturday with a strong line-up of seventeen skaters to take on Sharks short bench of fourteen skaters. As play got underway both teams sought to test the opposition’s defence, looking for an early advantage, but without success. Sharks were on the back foot after 12 minutes when assessed a for penalty, and despite Warriors pressure their well-drilled penalty kill unit once swung into action to deny the visitors. Despite entertaining play from both teams the buzzer saw the game still scoreless, Whitley narrowly outshooting Sharks by 8 shots to 6 in the opening twenty minutes.
A mere forty one seconds into the second Rick Bentham opened Sharks’ account with an unassisted shot snapped past Whitley netminder Josh Crane, to the delight of the large home crowd. Whitley sought to retaliate, putting Sharks keeper Calum Hepburn to the test, but he stood firm. Sharks had a powerplay opportunity at 23:17 but were unable to capitalise on the extra man advantage. Warriors’ Jordan Barnes bundled the puck past Hepburn on 27:54 to even the score. Solway were soon shorthanded as a penalty put Warriors on the power play on 31:32, but again successfully killed the opportunity. Back to full strength Sharks took a 2-1 lead at 34:42, Peter Gapa the man on target after some neat build up play from Scott Crane and Bentham. Soon afterwards the Warriors drew level, Steven Chalmers equalising on 36:49. The end of the second saw the sides head in on level terms once again, the crowd appreciative of the efforts of both teams.
Returning to the ice Sharks piled on some early pressure, before Warriors replied with further attacking play, successfully extinguished by Sharks’ defensive units. Sharks’ Scott Henderson restored his team’s lead on 45:41, assists coming from Crane and Gapa, to make it 3-2 to the home team. Warriors again piled on the pressure in the search for an equaliser, forcing Sharks to work hard to kill off an interference penalty on 56:19. With the end of the game approaching and Sharks in the lead, Warriors sought to push the game into overtime, gaining an additional skater by pulling netminder Crane. With the empty net gaping Henderson won the puck in his own end and shot for goal, Gapa deflecting into the net with just fifty-eight seconds remaining to seal his team’s 4-2 victory. The crowd were on their feet, thrilled at the victory and also the effort of the teams on the ice. Kieran Hair was Sharks’ man of the match.
Coach Jamie Thomson said afterwards, “We’re over the moon to get the clean sweep over Whitley this season, beating the reigning league champions 6 times in a row sums up our league campaign. We fell short last season with some sloppy games and gifted them a title – we were not going to do that again! It made it even sweeter to do it really short benched, proving we have depth and our lineup can get the job done regardless of which squad members are available.”
Sunday saw the Sharks head to Blackburn for their last league game of the current season, a band of travelling support making the journey to support their team. In a classy display the Hawks took to the ice first, then formed a guard of honour to welcome the newly crowned league champions onto their ice. When play got underway the home team took the early lead, Sean Jones beating Sharks’ netminder Euan Simpson for the opener at 2:30. With Sharks struggling to contain their attacks Hawks added another at 5:22 courtesy of Lee Pollitt. The visitors stepped up and held their lines through the middle part of the period, peppering Hawks’ net with shots, only to lose a powerplay goal, Pollitt taking full advantage to make it 3-0 at 13:21. As the end of the period approached Sharks found themselves on the powerplay and executed expertly, Ross Murray feeding the puck to Stuart Kerr who found Gordon Horne all alone at the back post, his shot beating Hawks keeper Michael Rogers to make it Hawks 3 Sharks 1. The first break saw the Hawks with a comfortable lead, despite Sharks having a superior shot tally.
The second saw Sharks get off to a strong start, an early powerplay again executed well, Gapa finding Kerr who picked out Scott Henderson, his close-range shot slotting past Rogers to bring Sharks within one of the home team at 21:42. Shortly afterwards Sharks were assessed a penalty giving Hawks the advantage, and Petr Valusiak restored the 2-goal gap at 23:07. Sharks dialled up the pressure on Hawks, putting Rogers and the defence under sustained spells of pressure, but could find no way past. It was Hawks who struck again, Ronnie Grimes taking their goal tally to 5 at 34:27. Even though Sharks kept up their pressure on Hawks’ net Rogers made some spectacular saves to deny them, and the end of the second period saw the score at Hawks 5 Sharks 2.
When Valusiak netted Hawks’ sixth in the second minute of the third the home crowd thought the game was theirs for the taking, but Sharks got their heads down and continued their attacking operation, putting on a gritty performance. Gordon Horne started the deluge, knocking the puck past Rogers at 47:23, on the end of smart passes from Rick Bentham and Gapa – 6-3. No sooner had the game faced off again when Sharks added another, Gapa and Henderson feeding the puck to Kieran Hair who knocked it over Rogers’ shoulder into the top corner at 47:34 – 6-4. Hair was involved again seconds later, going round the back of the net and passing in front to Bentham who slotted it in to make it 6-5 at 48:22. Three Sharks goals in the space of 59 seconds bringing them within a goal of the Hawks, and totally changing the momentum of the game. Play was end to end at this point, Simpson standing tall and backstopping the team effectively, while they kept up the pressure at the other end. Hard work by the Sharks paid off in the final five minutes of what was a frantic third period, Rogers turning away a Tonnar shot from Gapa only for Hair to beat him with the rebound shot at 55:21. With the score now 6 goals apiece the fans of both teams were on the edge of their seats. When play recommenced Sharks were fast from the faceoff and some clever play saw Ross Murray find the net from a tight angle at 55:59 to take the lead for the Sharks. Hawks pulled Rogers in the final minute for the extra skater, but with Sharks defending desperately there was no equaliser and the final whistle saw Sharks emerge victorious, winning the game by 7 goals to 6. Kieran Hair was man of the match.
Coach Jamie Thomson commented, “What a roller coaster of a game! Young Euan Simpson in goals came up with some massive saves as Blackburn put up a hell of a fight and did their fans proud for sure. I think we were a little shocked to be honest with their start and struggled to get into the game for 40 minutes, but in the end our constant barrage of pressure resulted in us doing what we do best – finding a way to win. Testament to our squad – short beat up, playing hurt, still winning.”
Sharks are back in action at the ice bowl on Saturday in what will be their last home game of the season as they face Nottingham Lions in their bid to make the playoff finals. Lions will be looking to repeat the form that saw them take Sharks to overtime before eventually beating them in what was a shock result in Nottingham in February, while Sharks will be looking to win over the two-legged aggregate score competition to progress to the Finals weekend in Leeds. Come along and support the team, face off is at 7pm.