Telford Tigers head coach Tom Watkins praised his team’s work ethic after coming from behind to reach the NIHL National Cup Final, defeating Swindon Wildcats on penalty shots in dramatic fashion to book their place.
It was a breathless semi-final as both sides – the top two in the National League – gave it their all and it was the Tigers, 7-4 down from the first leg, who were celebrating by the end.
But Watkins couldn’t have been happier and also paid tribute to the fans who kept the team going and revealed his group are continuing to surprise him.
“To start from three goals behind and to go four behind early in the game and still go on to win the tie is simply amazing,” Watkins said. “The guys played at another level, gave it everything they had and that work ethic gave us the chance to have a successful conclusion in a shootout.
“From a neutral perspective, it was a great game of hockey and I’ve got to salute the fans as well, who stuck with us all night.
“At four goals behind, the Telford fans stuck with us, they inspired us to one of the most memorable Tigers victories. This group of players keeps on surprising us all. They put in one heck of an effort and got their reward.“
Swindon player-coach Aaron Nell put the Wildcats ahead to extend their aggregate lead to four, which was cancelled out as Dominik Florian equalised.
Fin Howells put Telford in front on the night, with Swindon equalising through Edgars Bebris on the powerplay, but Scott McKenzie added a third for Tigers to bring them to within two on aggregate.
Brandon Whistle got on the board with Telford’s fourth on the night, taking the aggregate to a precarious 9-8 lead for Swindon and although Chris Jones made it 4-3 on the night to once again extend Swindon’s overall advantage, the Tigers weren’t out of it yet.
Thomas McKinnon and Jack Watkins scored to level the tie at 10-10 and 6-3 on the night and McKenzie thought he had won it with three minutes to go, only for it to be ruled out.
It all came down to penalty shots, after overtime couldn’t separate them and Whistle made the difference, sending his wrist shot past Renny Marr and triggering celebrations among the home fans.
Swindon coach Aaron Nell was understandably dejected as he tried to sum up what happened on a dramatic night for both teams.
He said: “I’m gutted for the team and the fans, but we have to say congratulations to Telford because they were very good.
“We kept ourselves in a good spot for probably 50 minutes of the game, but there’s not much else to say. They did to us what we did to them at our rink, but it’s very tough to take and had nothing to lose.
“It’s very disappointing, and I’m just gutted for the players and especially the fans who made the trip – we had great support tonight and I’m devastated we didn’t go through.”
Tigers will face the winner of the other semi-final between Peterborough Phantoms and Hull Stingrays, taking place on Friday, with Phantoms 4-2 up on aggregate from the first leg.