NIHL North Playoff Preview

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With the NIHL North playoffs fast approaching, just who are the contenders in the Moralee and Laidler Conferences and what have they brought to the ice this season?

Saturday 9th April

10:30am: Widnes Wild vs. Nottingham Lions

1:30pm Blackburn Hawks vs. Solway Sharks

4:30pm Deeside Dragons vs. Blackburn Eagles

7:30pm Whitley Warriors vs. Solihull Barons

 Sunday 10th April

1:30 Laidler Final

4:30pm Moralee Final

 

NIHL North Division One Moralee Conference

Blackburn Hawks

Champions for a second consecutive season, Daniel MacKriel’s Hawks reign over their Division One opposition, having won twenty six games out of a possible thirty two, thus losing points on just six occasions. With skilled players Adam Brittle, Richard Bentham and captain Chris Arnone amongst the NIHL’s finest, and Daniel Brittle undoubtedly one of the league’s best netminders, the Hawks have picked up from where they left off last season, also enjoying much input from Canadian import RJ Berra who achieved thirty one goals and forty assists before switching to Elite League outfit Edinburgh Capitals. A 4-2 preseason victory against Viikingit Jääkiekko allowed Blackburn to resume their unbeaten run, the Hawks soon finding themselves undefeated in eighteen months. A chink in the side’s armour began to appear however, when MacKriel’s men drew against Sutton Sting in Sheffield at the end of November before suffering defeat to David Longstaff’s Whitley Warriors the following weekend.

The addition of Reece Cairney-Witter to Blackburn’s roster has provided much entertainment to the league, the defenceman a force to be reckoned with from the moment he signed in November. First featuring in Hawks’ 2-2 draw against Sutton Sting, Cairney-Witter quickly became the star of the show as he took to the ice against Whitley Warriors and soon found himself in the eye of a storm as enforcer Andre Payette waged war against the Hawk. A storm cloud gathering  as the two teams prepared to face each other for a third time, it took only four seconds for Cairney-Witter and Payette to drop their gloves, both players giving their all in an evenly matched fight.

It is also clear that the Hawks have the upper hand against playoff semi-finalists Solway Sharks in terms of head to head form, the Lancashire outfit recording three victories against the Dumfries side and more recently triumphing in a 7-0 victory over Martin Grubb’s men at Blackburn Ice Arena. However Blackburn have also conceded a 5-3 away loss to the Dumfries line up this season and, with surprise losses against Whitley Warriors and Solihull Barons to boot, the outcome will be anyone’s guess as the Hawks encounter a tricky playoff semi-final against Grubb’s men on the 9th April.

Reflecting on the Hawks’ achievement this season, Cairney-Witter noted:

“I think it’s been a really good season at Blackburn with such a change in so many players from the unbeaten team last year and my highlight, I would say, was playing against Whitley Warriors for certain because they have been our closest rivals by far this year and all the games we have played have all been close and also nail biting at the same time. Secondly, the teams that have moved up from Division Two last year have impressed me a lot. Both Telford and Solihull have been very strong additions to a very strong league and I think it’s the strongest NIHL One has been for a while. I am looking forward to the last few games remaining and me and the boys are working harder than ever to be ready to go when the puck drops for the playoffs in just under a month.”

Whitley Warriors

Steeling themselves for a league placement promotion playoff against Widnes Wild this time last year, David Longstaff’s Whitley Warriors have undergone a drastic turnaround at the hands of their new player-coach, with the addition of enforcer Andre Payette, returning Warrior Shaun Kippin and defencemen Joe Stamp and Stu Tomlinson merging with the youth and experience of the current cohort.

Close to fifty points, Longstaff has lead the way with his level of commitment and dedication to inspire his players to a successful season and the attainment of a much-deserved playoff spot. Creating additional leadership roles, with the division of home alternate captaincy to Payette and power forward Jordan Barnes, and away alternate captaincy to defencemen Stamp and Dan Pye, the Warriors arguably have more leaders on the ice than ever before. Youngsters Callum Queenan, Kyle Hindmarsh-Ross, Liam Smedley, Craig Johnson and Ben Richards have also continued to shine for the Warriors, racking up twenty one goals and thirty assists between them.

Achieving an awful lot this season, the Warriors’ have iced with fortitude, resilience and intensity to put many of the NIHL’s top teams under pressure, with a momentous victory over Blackburn to bring the Hawks’ eighteen month unbeaten run to an end. Additionally, the Hillheads outfit have also triumphed over their derby rivals Billingham Stars following a 4-4 draw in October against Terry Ward’s men, claiming five points from a possible eight in these fixtures.

Facing Solihull Barons in their playoff semi-final, Whitley Warriors will hope to defeat the side that they have already recorded three league wins against. However, with Whitley enduring a 6-4 defeat to Perry Doyle’s side more recently, the Warriors will need to give the game their all if they are to beat the Barons on the larger ice surface to make the final.

Contemplating the transformation of his club, defenceman Josh Maddock observed:

“Nearly being relegated and being in the position we were in last season was a bit of a shock to the system as, I think, looking around the dressing room, we had the players to be further up the league. This season, with Lobby [David Longstaff] coming in, I think we have been a more solid unit. Lobby’s had us working harder in training and we are more drilled this season and it has shown on the ice. Coming into this season, none of us really knew what to expect but I think we were all pretty optimistic on how the season would pan out. With a few of the other teams in the league able to pay players, I think people underestimated how good our home grown players are and didn’t really expect us to get into the top four. We have fought hard and pushed Blackburn all the way for the league title and I firmly believe that we can walk out of the playoffs with the trophy.”

Solihull Barons

Finishing in third place, Perry Doyle’s Solihull Barons have also gone beyond the expectations of many this season to claim a playoff place. Newly promoted in September, the Barons showed that they could contend with the heightened competition in the Moralee Conference with a victory over Solway Sharks in September, having lost out in consecutive games to Whitley Warriors prior to this fixture. Displaying spirit and determination to battle back from these opening defeats, the Barons have since won twenty of thirty one games to hold onto their playoff position.

The perfect balance of skill and strength, the Barons possess an outstanding roster with the goal scoring abilities of Thomas Soar, Josh Bruce and Niklas Ottosson complementing the formidable power of player-coach Perry Doyle, captain Rob Eley and young forward Stephen Heape. Contending with Division One’s most established and most challenging teams this season, the Barons have recorded victories against every side in the league at least once to prove themselves worthy of a playoff spot. When considering the top five points scorers of each team in the Moralee Conference, those of Solihull Barons have collectively accumulated more points than those of their opposition in Division One, with the exception of Blackburn Hawks, of course.

Doyle’s leadership this season has been second to none and, whilst success for the team includes a victory over champions Blackburn Hawks, the player-coach has also thrown himself into the limelight when required, engaging in battle with Warrior Andre Payette and returning Hawk Reece Cairney-Witter. The Barons’ fighting prowess has resulted in seven hundred and twenty three penalty minutes, the side leading the way in the number of penalty minutes awarded to an individual team this season.

With the stakes higher than ever, Solihull will be sure to present themselves as a force to be reckoned with as Payette and Doyle meet in another entertaining clash between the two sides.

In light of this impending fixture, player-coach Perry Doyle shared his thoughts on Solihull’s campaign and his most recent work at the club:

“This season the Barons provided me with one of the biggest challenges in my hockey career to date, taking on the role of Director of Hockey for the Solihull Barons. Coming back to play for Solihull was always my wish and having to adapt to the new rules and systems of the league was no easy feat so you can understand that, whilst I was looking forward to my new challenge, I was also apprehensive as well.

 

“It goes without saying that I am a well-known enforcer and tough guy, having been around the hockey circuit for many years now and with that label you receive a fair amount of negative publicity. However, the support I did get from ex-players, coaches, current players, team staff and close friends and family, I welcomed the opportunity to try my hand in the world of coaching. To date, I still stand by my decision.

“When asked originally what my thoughts were on league position for this season and what I was aiming to deliver, I said I would be happy to aim for mid-table, provide a good, strong base for the team for next season and also work with the existing fan base to deliver a team that they would be happy and willing to support. With the team we had, I knew we had something good but often a little change can upset the momentum in any team. The setup at Solihull has allowed me to concentrate on the on-ice issues and leave the backroom staff to pick up anything else or often give me a gentle nudge if I need advice or support.

 

“This season the team has exceeded all expectations and made a lot of friends along the way as we have strived to remove any previous stigmas attached with the Solihull Barons and my playing history. A bad guy can also be a good guy at times! The standard of the teams this season has been a welcome challenge and the step up to the higher league has often pushed the team to its limits. Whilst we have ended the season on a high, there are still items we need to work on; out of twelve losses, seven had less than a three goal difference and that is something that grinds me heavily. As with any other team, we have had our ups and downs but pulled together when needed and I am proud of the team and staff for that.

 

“Good luck to those who are taking part in playoff weekend and I hope that the event is a success and becomes a yearly event. Lastly, I would like to thank my wonderful partner Jo for putting up with me and the hockey in what is a busy year for us both, and for not blackening my other eye following my recent visit to Whitley Bay.”

 

Solway Sharks

No team in NIHL North Division One has undergone a greater turnaround than that of Martin Grubb’s Solway Sharks this season, the Dumfries outfit finding themselves all but foot of the table until recently. With the NIHL at its most competitive this season, the Sharks have demonstrated great resilience to battle back against strong opposition to earn a top four finish and that much-coveted playoff spot.

Having lost several players over the summer, including top goal scorer Richard Bentham who made the switch to Blackburn Hawks, the Sharks were then left behind by initial signing Craig Douglas who, though intended to fill the skates of Gary Russell, made the switch to Elite League outfit Fife Flyers. As a result, the Sharks found themselves without a netminder and were left little choice other than to call on shot stopper Kieran Hobbins to step into the breach. Taking on the role of first choice netminder, Hobbins has shown that he can be relied upon, quite often proving himself to be Solway’s lifeline and keeping the Sharks in games when they have needed it most.

Solway’s most notable victory this season was undoubtedly a league win over Blackburn Hawks played at the Dumfries Ice Bowl in January. The teams’ belief further ignited, it appeared that this was the turning point of the Sharks’ season; Grubb’s men winning nine games from fourteen subsequent to this result, as opposed to the seven from eighteen that were recorded prior to this fixture. With the goal scoring ability of Marc Fowley, Duncan Speirs, captain Struan Tonnar and imports Martin Cingel and Juraj Senko, Solway have what it takes to win the game but must show it in their semi-final in order to achieve the ultimate success.

It goes without saying that this semi-final will be an intense one and perhaps even fiery, both teams collectively tallying one hundred and twenty one penalty minutes across the four leagues fixtures they have encountered each other this campaign. Whilst Blackburn may call on Reece Cairney-Witter at some point in the game, Sharks’ alternate captain Ross Murray has again proven himself to be quite a resource this season, fighting the Sharks’ battles in front of goal and exchanging punches with some of the NIHL’s toughest.

Taking the time to discuss Solway’s playoff qualification, netminder Hobbins shared his views:

“Getting to the playoffs wasn’t easy. We’ve had ups and downs to get there but in the end it shows the resilience and character of our team. I think in mid-January, we were sitting in eighth place and looking far too adrift to even qualify. However, as a team, we’ve all worked hard and bought in to what Martin [Grubb], Scott [McMeekan] and Cingy [Martin Cingel] have told us and it shows by our form since returning after the Christmas break. It’s a great turnaround and confidence within the team is high and it shows by how we’re playing. I think the hard graft is still to come. We, as a team, don’t want to qualify just to take part. We want to go to ice Sheffield with the confidence that, if we execute our game plan, we will give ourselves the highest possible chance to win. This is our last chance at a piece of silverware this season and we as a team are hungry to grasp our hands on the playoff trophy once again.”

NIHL North Division One Laidler Conference

Deeside Dragons

Sitting in the topmost position of the Laidler Conference, Deeside Dragons have much to celebrate, having succeeded in their efforts to secure promotion as well as a playoff place. Having won twenty three games from twenty seven, and losing out only once in a contest with Nottingham Lions, the Dragons have shown themselves to be formidable this season.

High-scoring draws against foot-of-the-table side Bradford Bulldogs, title rivals Widnes Wild and the hardworking Blackburn Eagles have also proved entertaining but largely, the Dragons’ opposition in Division Two have found the team a challenge to play against, more often than not suffering heavy defeats at the hands of the league leaders. In a more recent clash against Widnes Wild, player-coach Scott McKenzie saw fit to remove his team from the ice in the early stages of the second period, feeling that the risk to his players was too great, with several roughing penalties handed out to either side. Coincidently, Deeside were handed a 3-1 victory due to the abandonment of the game and, should both teams make it to the playoff final, this encounter will be a very interesting one to say the least.

Standout players for Deeside Dragons this season include Slovakian imports Adrian Palak and Filip Supa, the forwards collectively tallying one hundred goals and sixty seven assists for the side to become two of the league’s highest points scorers this season. Accumulating penalty minutes rather than points, forward Paul Davies and defenceman Bryn Roberts have stood out for quite different reasons this campaign, both players racking up over a hundred penalty minutes each. Whilst Deeside have battled through the season to make it to the top of the Laidler Conference, none of it would have been possible without the leadership of captain Marc Lovell whose experience ranges from a stint in the Elite league with Manchester Phoenix, ice time in the EPL with Telford Tigers and a spot in the line-up of ENL2 side, Flintshire Freeze.

As captain of the title winning Dragons, Lovell took the time to talk about Deeside’s latest campaign ahead of the playoffs:

“This season with the Dragons is the best we’ve had in a long time and it been a pleasure to play there and be a part of it. There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the season about Red Hockey taking over and buying the league title but all of the players and coaches still had to deliver and that’s what we’ve done as a team. Even when Red Hockey left in January, we stuck together as a team and finished the league off strong just like we started. As for the playoffs, we are all really looking forward to it and it should be a really good weekend. Hopefully we can play like we have done all season and win another trophy to finish our season off.”

Deeside Dragons will take on the Blackburn Eagles in their playoff semi-final, having already triumphed over the Lancashire outfit three times this season with landslide victories of 10-2, 11-1 and 10-3 achieved by the Dragons to date. A 5-5 away draw saw Deeside challenged by Scott Barnett’s team, who battled back from 2-0 down to get ahead in the game before the Dragons added to their tally to claim a point. Should a playoff semi-final between the two resemble this game in anyway, it is likely to be a highly enthralling fixture as the league leaders clash with Barnett’s fourth placed Eagles once more.

Widnes Wild

Finishing in second place behind Deeside Dragons, Widnes Wild have claimed both a playoff spot and the chance to secure promotion in a league placement playoff final which will be played at a later date against Moralee Conference outfit Sheffield Spartans.

Set to face Nottingham Lions in the first semi-final of playoff weekend, the Wild will be up for a challenge as they look to take on the team they have lost out to twice already this campaign; their only victory against the side was back in October and a more recent contest with the Lions ended in a 5-5 draw between the two.

With player-coach Scott McKenzie the Laidler Conference’s highest points scorer this season, the forward having racked up one hundred and twenty eight points in twenty seven games, and with fellow forwards Shaun Dippnall and Geoff Wigglesworth two of the league’s most creative players, the Wild should certainly not be short of goal scoring opportunities come playoff weekend.

In a recent clash against Deeside Dragons, Wild’s defenceman Lee Kemp and netminder Greg Ruxton both sustained injuries which led to McKenzie calling on his players to leave the ice. As a result, these players are expected to miss out on the semi-final, with shot stopper Joshua Benstead likely to be called into action, the youngster having featured in several fixtures for the side this season.

A strong coaching structure at the club ensures that the team continues to achieve, with assistant coaches Richard Charles and Mark Gillingham, and goaltending coach Tom McDonald, working together to give the team direction and guidance when Widnes need it most. Whilst this will be one battle that they hope to win, the Wild also look forward to a clash with Sheffield Spartans after the playoffs as they aim for promotion to the Moralee Conference, the side having lost out against Whitley Warriors last season. With the prospect of silverware and a place in Division One still possible, it may be that the future of Widnes lies beyond the Laidler Conference.

Considering the league campaign of Widnes Wild, player-coach Scott McKenzie took time to discuss his team’s achievements and the future of the club:

“This year has been a really productive one for Widnes Wild. I came on board in April and really had a blank canvas to work with and put my stamp on. The junior programme was my priority and that is slowly growing. With a successful junior programme, we feel that the senior team will almost look after itself. I believe we have been successful as a club this year; second place is not to be sniffed at and we have the chance to go up into the Moralee Conference. A highlight for me has to be the home draws with both Nottingham and Deeside. Both games drew in over five hundred people so the atmosphere was electric, similar to what we expect this weekend at the playoffs. Moving forward, the aspirations of the club are to grow, produce great British players and to be self-sufficient. There is no real time scale as we understand that it is a process. We have a great rink, great support and great volunteers; a brilliant foundation to build a hockey club on.”

Nottingham Lions

With development of young British talent a key component of Nottingham Lions’ philosophy, coaches Matt Bradbury and Paul Glossop will aim to showcase the talent of their side’s young prospects when they face Widnes Wild in their fast-approaching playoff semi-final.

The Lions’ top points scorers include youngster Connor Glossop, Czech Republican Ondrej Pniok and thirty year old forward Robert Perks, a fact which reveals the diversity of Nottingham’s roster and the complementation of youth and experience in the squad. Finishing in third place in the Laidler Conference, the Lions have fought hard to compete with fellow playoff contenders Deeside Dragons, Widnes Wild and Blackburn Eagles this season.

Sharing a detailed account of the Lions’ season and playoff qualification, alternate captain Adz Andrews kindly introduces us to his team and the achievements of their campaign as his side get set to ice in the first semi-final of playoff weekend against Widnes Wild:

“This season the Lions had a great start with a run of results that put us in good stead from the start but form over the remaining run of games put us out of the league running with some poor results against teams we should have secured points against. Placing third is better than last year and securing a playoff spot was our main objective which was achieved.

 

“Highlights so far are that we have been the only team to beat Deeside, along with some close fought battles against playoff rivals Widnes Wild and Blackburn Eagles who have all shown great form and deserve their place at the finals weekend. From a Lions’ perspective, being able to give so many of our U18’s and U20’s a chance to play regular roles all year has been a pleasure to watch and to ice with many who will be on show at the finals. Players like GB international and Nottingham Panthers/Manchester Storm player Connor Glossop, young netminder Tomas Hovell, who has dressed for both the Panthers and Belfast Giants of late, not to mention young, exciting prospects Joe Humphries, Joe Gretton, Cam Pyewell and Liam Redwood, all who are looking forward to showcasing their talents at the finals.

 

“From a playoff perspective and ambitions, who knows? It’s anyone’s playoff trophy to lose.  Based on games played against our rivals, we held the series win over Widnes, winning two, drawing one and losing one in a four game series. We then played out a 2-2 series against the Eagles, tying with each other on points and goals scored. Ultimately, the playoffs are a one- game-winner-takes-it-all; anyone can win in any given game. All we can do is continue training as we are and up the tempo.

 

“Our coaches, Matt Bradbury and Paul Glossop, will have us well drilled and conditioned, ready for the playoff weekend which promises to be a fantastic event for all involved, where we look forward to showing what we are all about and hopefully walk away with some silverware for our efforts.

 

“Be sure not to miss the opening game at 10:30am against Widnes Wild. In previous games this has all the attributes to be a cracking start to a great weekend.

Enjoy the weekend, alternate captain Adz Andrews.”

Blackburn Eagles

Claiming the fourth and final playoff place in NIHL North Division Two, Blackburn Eagles finished just two points adrift of third place, having accumulated thirty three points from twenty seven games.

The Eagle’s most valuable player has been Slovakian import Tomas Mitrik who made the switch from Deeside Dragons over the summer to become one of the outfit’s strongest players, scoring nineteen goals and successfully aiding the offensive efforts of his team mates on twenty six occasions.

With the Eagles a development team for Moralee Conference side Blackburn Hawks, forwards Lee Pollitt and James Riddoch have also featured for the Hawks this season along with youngsters Callum Strong and Kyle Haslam who have enjoyed senior debuts with the Division One side. Improving on last season’s ninth place finish, the development of individual players is concurrent with the progress of the whole team and Eagles fans have watched as the side transformed from the struggling unit it once was to playoff contender; notably the side failed to pick up a single point in their 2012-13 campaign, highlighting the extent of the Eagles’ achievement.

Playing against the champions of the Laidler Conference in their playoff semi-final, Blackburn have a tough task ahead of them, having lost all but one game to the Dragons this season. However, the Eagles can take courage from their 5-5 home draw played against Deeside at the end of December as the Lancashire team worked hard in this fixture, showing resilience to take a point though they were behind in the opening stages of the game.

Reflecting on the Eagles’ achievements this season, player-coach Scott Barnett considered his team’s success and revealed what a place in the playoffs means to his side:

“I am very happy that the Eagles have made the playoffs this year. A place at the end of the season showdown was our goal as a team from day one. It is another step in the right direction for us as a team. We have worked hard and we have improved over the past three years. My lads have continued to improve all season and we have continued to grow as a team. We have had a tough run of games leading in to the playoff weekend and we got the results we needed when it counted so confidence is high. We are looking forward to the weekend, it will be a good experience for all my players and a further opportunity for us to develop as a team.”

With Blackburn to play in the third semi-final against Deeside, this game is not one to be missed as the striving Eagles could add to their list of achievements this season with a momentous victory against the Welsh outfit to make it to the Laidler playoff final.

Good luck to all teams taking part in the NIHL North Playoff Weekend and thank you to Reece Cairney-Witter, Josh Maddock, Perry Doyle, Kieran Hobbins, Marc Lovell, Scott McKenzie, Adz Andrews and Scott Barnett for taking the time to share their views ahead of the playoffs.

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