NIHL North big guns jostle for early supremacy

Three of NIHL North Moralee D1’s highest profile teams hit the ice this weekend aiming to make an early statement of their title credentials.

Solway Sharks and Blackburn Hawks will look to build on their unbeaten starts to the season, while Billingham Stars are hoping to bounce back after losing to both their title rivals last weekend.

Sharks welcome Sutton Sting to Dumfries on Saturday with victories against the Stars and Whitley Warriors already on the board.

Head Coach Martin Grubb said: “We’re of course delighted with the four points last weekend, but we weren’t perfect by any stretch.

“We’ve been working this week to fine tune a few things to hopefully make us even better and keep the run going.

“Over last weekend we had contributions from pretty much everyone at both ends of the ice so we’re happy with the balance in the squad – we aren’t reliant on one particular player or line and we defend and attack as a unit.

“Sutton are one of our longest established rivals – they always play fast attacking hockey and with the likes of Dima (Dmitri Zimozdra) in net they’re always tough to break down.

“We’ll have to maintain the intensity and the level we showed last week, take the chances when they come and look after the puck in our own end. If we do that then the result should take care of itself.”

Stars followed up their 3-1 defeat at Solway with a 5-2 reverse in Blackburn, but they have an immediate chance for redemption when the Hawks visit Teesside on Sunday.

General Manager Allen Flavell wants to see a positive response from the Stars after last weekend’s woes.

“We’ve had this week to regroup and work on a few things in training,” said Flavell.

“This Sunday we can start to set things right – it’s still hard for me to believe that we came out of last weekend with nothing at all.

“We saw a lot of the puck, we had lots of possession, we outworked our opponents, but ultimately it’s the scores on the doors that count.

“We looked like we were coming back into it last Saturday against Solway, but we took a major penalty at exactly the wrong time and it finished us off.

“Sunday was just ‘one of those games’ where nothing went right in front of goal. The lads aren’t too disappointed though, it hasn’t been too hard to lift them because we know we competed so well in both games.

“We’ve got a side here that’s capable of matching anyone in the division, so I’ll be astounded if we don’t come out of Sunday’s game with something to show.”

The Hawks host the Warriors on Saturday before travelling to play the Stars the following evening, but despite starting their title defence with a victory new boss Matt Darlow has played down their chances this time around.

“Billingham played well last week, but they got scrappy in parts and we capitalised on that,” said Darlow. “We know they’re strong, but we also know we can do damage.

“We’re training and working hard and just focusing on the next game. We have no stated ambitions – we’re just a process-based team.

“We’ll simply turn out every week, work at our hardest and see where it gets us.”

(Image permission: Mark Paterson)

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