A RECORD crowd at the Blackburn Arena saw the Hawks take a slender one goal advantage over Billingham Stars in last night’s play-off final first leg.
An English National Ice Hockey League North record of 1,276 packed into the Arena to see Blackburn Hawks beat their North East opponents to take a step closer to ending their 22-year wait for silverware.
After a uneventful first period, goals from Jorden Bannon and Chris Arnone gave the hosts the advantage in the second third, with Paul Windridge briefly levelling.
Neither side were able to add to the score in the final period, setting up a tense second leg in Billingham next Sunday evening.
It was the visitors who started the match in the ascendency with Hawks’ Danny Brittle the busier of the two net minders.
Billingham’s Martyn Davies was frustrated by Brittle on just two minutes before Adam Robinson was kept out seconds later as the visitors threatened to take the early advantage.
Brittle continued to be tested as Hawks struggled to get their attacking game together but he didn’t let the hosts down as he stopped everything that was thrown at him.
Paul Windridge, Anthony Pryce and Simon Hehir were all frustrated by the inspired Brittle, allowing Blackburn to slowly work their way into the tie.
Hawks’ first effort of the game came on seven minutes when player coach Jared Owen flicked the puck inches over the bar after neat approach play from Fin Sami Narkia.
Billingham were unable to take advantage of a power play on nine, after Ollie Lomax was sin binned for delaying the game, with Hawks failing to capitalise on their own power play soon after, when the visitors’ Matthew Sellers was sent to the bin for interference.
As the period came to an end, Chris Arnone saw a couple of shots saved by net minder James Flavell as the home crowd were given hope for the rest of the tie.
It was a different Hawks who emerged after the break as, with Narkia and the young Jorden Bannon looking threatening, Billingham’s defence started to look shaky.
And, after Narkia had gone close early on, the hosts took the lead on 23 minutes through Bannon.
The youngster was the quickest to the rebound, after Flavell had partially stopped Lomax’s shot, and he made no mistake in slamming the puck home.
Billingham tried to hit back but continued to come up against an impressive Brittle, with the net minder stopping efforts from James McCabe and Callum Davies within the space of a few seconds.
Hawks’ Tom King was then denied by Flavell before Craig Rogers’ fierce strike was blocked by the net minder’s face.
King and Lomax also went close for an increasingly dominant Hawks before, against the run of play, Billingham were level.
Windridge was on hand to fire home for close range for the visitors after a scramble in front of Brittle’s net on 34.
Parity did not last for long though as Arnone converted Gary Dixon’s cross just two minutes later, after good work on the boards by Ric Hughes, to send the Arena wild.
After a long break at the start of the final period, due to a blood injury to Billingham’s Price, Hawks went in search a third ahead of next weekend’s second leg.
At the other end Brittle saved well from speculative hits by Udell and Richie Thornton, while Aaron Davies had a shot well saved by Flavell for the Hawks on 48.
Owen should have extended the hosts lead when the puck was worked to him just yards out on 49 but, after his initial shot was kept out by Flavell, Blackburn were unable to take advantage of the ensuing scramble.
Arnone and Rogers were sin binned for the hosts for roughing during the attack, while Billingham’s Simon Hehir and James Moss were also given a two minute penalty.
As Billingham went in search of a priceless equaliser, Tom King was penalised for hooking on 52, giving the visitors their second power play of the evening.
Hawks’ defence again held firm though and Bobby Streetly was only denied a third for Hawks by some sharp keeping by Flavell on 56.
Richie Thornton was sin binned for the last two minutes for delaying the game for Billingham but Hawks were unable to add that all-important third goal.