Sharks Swoop To Playoff Victory – Ice Hockey

The Building Craftsmen Dumfries Solway Sharks headed to Planet Ice Leeds at the weekend, looking to secure the NIHL North 1 playoff trophy to add to their league title.

Saturday saw them face Billingham Stars in their semi-final game.  Both teams started fast, Stars fresh from victory over Cup winners Windes to qualify, Sharks having beaten Nottingham Lions home and away to secure their spot.  Sharks took an early lead, a perfectly placed Stuart Kerr pass from the Sharks D zone sent via Lewis Houston to the tape of Kieran Hair who skated in from the red and beat Stars netty Thomas Brown catcher side to put Sharks on the scoreboard in the fifth minute.   2 minutes later Stars responded with a goal of their own, Callum Wilkinson shooting over Callum Hepburn to equalise.

Spurred back into action, Sharks Captain Struan Tonnar moved them ahead in the 13th minute with a stunning solo effort, collecting the puck at his own end before carving a path through Stars defence for the strike to retake the lead.   A minute later Sharks stretched their lead, Ewan Anderson collecting the puck from Scott Henderson at the centre line, a lovely piece of passing play between Anderson and Peter Gapa seeing the former hit the net in the 16th minute, Billingham netminder Brown having kicked out Gapa’s shot into his path.  The first ended with Sharks 3 goals to 1 ahead.

A cautious second period followed with the Stars more successful in containing Sharks’ attacks. It didn’t last though, in the 30th minute Gapa in the corner picking out Anderson in space in front of the net, his backhand pass to an unmarked Henderson fired into the roof of Brown’s net. It would have been easy for Billingham to give up, but they kept coming at Sharks and were rewarded in the 36th minute when Chris Sykes scored to bring the gap back to two at the end of the period – Sharks 4 Stars 2.

Sharks were determined not to let their advantage slip, and just 35 seconds into the final stanza they drew away from battling Billingham when Henderson and Anderson combined to steady a bobbling puck and knock it to Gapa who shot past Brown for the team’s fifth.  The 44th minute saw Sharks put more distance between them and Stars, Tonnar passing to Gapa who broke down the left before squaring to Anderson, his shot coming almost from mid-air as he was checked but beating Brown nonetheless for the sixth. Stars didn’t give it up and piled the on pressure as the end of the game approached, but their chances were limited as Solway dictated the closing stages comfortably and claimed a 6-2 victory to book their place in the final.

Man of the Match for Sharks was Captain Struan Tonnar, and for Billingham was Tommy Spraggon. After the game Sharks Head Coach Martin Grub tod us, ”We came into this semi final knowing that Billingham would come at us and had nothing to lose after making the final four and we would need to match their work rate. We started a little slow but once we grew into the game and got ourselves in front then we settled and started to dominate. We were solid in defence and created lots of opportunities and we played some good hockey to make sure we got a commanding lead and find a way to make sure we got to the final. The boys deserved to win and put in a commanding, professional performance to give themselves the opportunity to play for the playoff title.”

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.

With everything to play for league Champions Sharks faced up to second-placed Warriors on Sunday for the ultimate North 1 competition.

With the game fast and furious as usual between the top two teams the hockey was entertaining in the first period, with the teams matching each other in effort.   Both sides battled fiercely for possession in their efforts to break the deadlock, but with neither side able to find a way past the opposing netminder the score remained at 0-0 when the teams headed in at the first break.

As the second started Whitley found themselves under increasing pressure, Sharks making the best possible start at 22:25, Ewan Anderson tapping in Peter Gapa’s rebound to open the scoring and make it 1-0.  Despite Warriors best efforts they could not thwart all Sharks’ attacks and with three minutes left in the period Lewis Houston beat Crane after scooping up the puck in front of goal from Liam Danskin’s deflected shot from the point to give Solway a 2-0 lead which stood to the end of the period.

Sharks made a dream start to the final period, Scott Henderson carrying the puck through the neutral zone only to see his shot saved, but Anderson buried the rebound to score his second and the team’s third on 41:15.  A penalty on Warriors on 43:09 gave Sharks the advantage, and they capitalised ninety eight seconds later, Bentham picking up a loose puck and feeding Callum Boyd who made it four on a breakaway.  Warriors then pulled a goal back on 47:45 courtesy of Adam Finlinson.  Just fifteen seconds later Whitley went on the power play when Sharks picked up a penalty on 48:00. Jordan Barnes took advantage to find the target, making it 4-2 and prompting a timeout for the Sharks. Seeking an advantage as the clock ticked towards the end of the game Whitley pulled Crane from his net, but Anderson dispossessed Rihards Grigors to bag an empty net goal to seal his hat-trick on 58:08. This goal completed the game for Sharks, their 5-2 win seeing them crowned deserving NIHL North 1 Moralee playoff champions, another trophy to add to their league title.  Calum Hepurn was Sharks’ man of the match.  Captain Struan Tonnar received the Playoff Champions Trophy to the delight of the players, staff and assembled Sharks’ fans.

Head Coach Martin Grubb reflected, “Games against the Warriors are always hard fought encounters and add in the opportunity to be playoff champs then this was always going to be a tight, tense affair.  Whitley started brighter than us and put everything to the net in the first period and we had Calum to thank for keeping the scores level at the first intermission. We had a good chat and made some little adjustments after the first period and were instantly better and grabbed the lead, and we said that if we scored first we were sure we would go on to win as they would feel the pressure of us winning the previous 6 games against them and it would give us the mental edge. The third period started great for us and despite having to kill a few soft penalties we went 4-0 up and put ourselves firmly in the driving seat. A little bit of slackness allowed them to score 2 quick goals but a timeout to remind the players that they are the best team in the league and we were still on the verge of winning the playoffs killed Whitleys momentum and we sealed the deal with an empty net goal to ensure that we were crowned Kings of the North. The players deserve huge credit for not only their performances but also the character shown this weekend and all year and I am so proud of them. Our supporters were unbelievable in the backing they gave us and we loved celebrating with them at the end, and now we have 1 more trophy to win this weekend in Coventry.”

Sharks head to Coventry at the weekend for their final game of the season, taking on NIHL South 1 league and playoff champions Streatham in the battle to be crowned National Champions and take the Treble title crown.