NIHL North weekend preview

Solihull’s Perry Doyle

The race to reach the Moralee Conference play-offs looks set to go down to the wire, with four teams battling for the remaining two slots.

Billingham Stars, Sutton Sting, Whitley Warriors and Sheffield Spartans can still secure a place in Dumfries to join Solway Sharks and Blackburn Hawks in the end of season showdown.

Stars (P26 Pts 30) are at Telford Titans on Saturday, while Sting (P24 Pts 27) travel to Solway buoyed by last week’s 3-2 win at Billingham. Chris Sykes bagged the winner on Teesside and says it was a big result: “Billingham are a well drilled team and we turned up knowing we had to play ‘play-off style’ hockey to get a road win. The boys dug deep and our finishing was clinical.

“Two points away at Billingham is a massive statement and leaves us in a better place in the play-off race. It’s so tight for the last two places, but we’re treating each game as a play-off final and doing everything we can to make sure we’re in Scotland for them.”

Saturday’s remaining Moralee game sees Manchester Minotaurs host Sheffield. The following day Spartans return to home ice to face Telford, Whitley play Manchester, Solway are at Blackburn, while Sutton and Billingham face-off in the KD Flavell & Sons Northern Cup.

Laidler Conference leaders Solihull Barons travel to Nottingham Lions on Sunday looking to extend their 16-game winning streak. Barons’ impressive form has seen Perry Doyle and Richie Slater selected for this summer’s NIHL North All-Star game at Deeside. Veteran defenseman Doyle was delighted to be invited: “It’s a real privilege to be part of the All-Star weekend. After 10 years away from the game things couldn’t be any better. I’ve had some well-documented problems, but they’re all behind me now.

“The team are playing well and our dressing room is a great place to be. I’m looking forward to the Laidler play-offs too. It’s a shame Deeside have withdrawn, but things should really have been arranged much sooner. Maybe Widnes, who really impressed me last week, can take advantage of the opportunity open to them. Personally, I’m enjoying playing the game again and working with the kids – I’m a bit of a role-model now! I’m still really fit and should have another few years left in me.”

Lions’ form has dipped in recent weeks and captain Luke Thomas is keen to return to winning ways: “Solihull games are usually closely fought, with skilful hockey and plenty of passion. Barons have made up for a shaky start and come a long way since we beat them twice earlier in the season. They have an experienced team and I can’t see anyone taking the title away from them. The one advantage we have is playing at home on the larger ice pad, which doesn’t always suit their style.

“This season has been tough for us. The players we lost over the summer, injuries and absence have hurt our chances of regaining the title, as we’ve only had a full squad available for three or four games all year. Losing Joe Wightman for long periods has impacted on our scoring ability and the lack of goals has led to our league position, as our goals against is still one of the best in the conference.

“The aim now is to gain some momentum and head into the play-offs as strong as possible. It’s disappointing to see Deeside pull out, especially as the weekend was discussed and voted for at a league meeting, however the teams currently 5th, 6th & 7th are able to beat the top four and will more than deserve their place.”

Sheffield Senators host Widnes on Saturday, with Wild returning to home ice the following evening to face Coventry Blaze. Deeside Dragons are also in action on Sunday as they meet Sheffield.

(Image permission: Keith & Jenny Davies)

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