WIDNES Wild had cause to celebrate at the weekend as they secured second place in the Laidler Conference table and also beat a highly organised Hull Jets team 7-5 in their first game at home at Silver Blades Widnes in over a month, Paul Breeze writes.
The Wild needed just one point from their final three games to be sure of securing the runners up position in the league but, as things turned out, they achieved that position without having to hit a puck in anger after play-off contenders Altrincham Aces did them a favour by beating third place Sheffield Senators away in Sheffield earlier in the day, meaning that the “Sens” could no longer catch Widnes for second place.
But there was still a game to won and the Wild team went about it in their usual professional manner.
As it turned out, it was Hull who scored the first goal of the game – with just over a minute on the clock - as the league’s top scorer Richard Hagger beat Wild netminder Greg Ruxton with a long shot from the left wing at an incredibly narrow angle to the goal.
The lead lasted a little over 5 minutes as Wild Captain Shaun Dippnall managed to steal the puck from a Hull defender and crossed for Bobby Caunce to slot it into the net. Just 27 seconds later, Caunce returned the favour by carrying the puck round behind the net and passing back out for Dippnall to put the Wild into the lead.
Shortly after this, Widnes found themselves short-handed for two minutes but they weathered the storm and, on exactly 11 minutes, in-form sniper Stuart Brittle gleefully received a cross-goal pass from Nick Manning, which he then fired past the Hull netminder’s unguarded right hand side to put the Wild two goals ahead.
3 minutes later it was 4-1 after a great spell of Widnes pressure and passing around the Hull defensive zone saw the puck fall to Bez Hughes who blasted in a screamer of a goal from just inside the blueline.
And then with 15.33 gone on the clock, Danny Bullock picked up a halfway line pass from Karl Niamatali and fired in the Wild’s 5th goal of the night.
It looked as if the Hull team were going to be completely over-run at this stage and, quite sensibly, the Jets bench called a 30 second time out which enabled them to regroup and also broke the Widnes momentum.
Whatever was said must have worked because Hull emerged from the team talk a changed side.
They got Widnes on the back foot and forced a defensive interference penalty. As a result of this, the Jets’ other sharpshooter – Kieran Beach – fired in a powerplay goal for Hull with just under a minute to go in the period.
With the score at 5-2 at the first break, Widnes still looked good for the win but the whole complexion of the game changed in the second period. Despite constant pressure from Widnes on the Hull goal, the Jets were the next to score as Richard Hagger fired in a long shot from the right hand side to make it 5-3.
Less than 2 minutes later, Widnes restored their 3-goal advantage after a Stuart Brittle pass from behind the goal found player coach Ollie Barron who fired in from close range and that was the end of the scoring for the second period.
What followed for the remaining 13 minutes of that third was an incredibly tense and close knit contest where you really wouldn’t have known that Hull were a team in 6th place in the table.
The Wild peppered the Hull goal with shots and Jets netminder Bowater did very well to keep them out.
Despite the three goal advantage, it was clear that Widnes had not yet done enough to win the game and Hull had every chance to pull themselves back into it.
Within seconds of the start of the third period, Hull player Daniel Spence was pulled up by the referee for unsportsmanlike conduct, which then developed into a 10 minute penalty for abuse and then a game misconduct penalty as well.
The Wild pushed forward during the ensuing 2 minute powerplay but were unable to make any sort of breakthrough and then, after killing off the penalty, the Jets scored again to make the score 6-4.
You could really feel the tension rack up around the arena after this and things then got considerably worse for the Wild fans as Hull scored again – this time on an interference powerplay – to make the score 6-5 with 11 minutes still to play.
It seemed almost inevitable that the Hull team – having bravely battled back from being 5-1 down so early on in the game - would go on to score an equalising goal but the Wild team dug deep and managed to keep them at bay.
Widnes nerves were finally settled a little by a great individual goal from Stuart Brittle with 3½ minutes left to play and the Wild pushed forward again looking to finally kill the game off.
They enjoyed a huge amount of possession in the last minutes of the game and practically besieged the Hull goal without managing to make a breakthrough.
Then, with just 90 seconds left to play, a breakaway saw two Jets attackers bearing down on netminder Matt Croyle – who had come on in place of Greg Ruxton halfway through the game – and he made a series of heroic saves to keep them out and maintain the Widnes lead.
The weekend’s events mean that Widnes are now guaranteed second place in the Laidler Conference as they can’t now be caught by the teams below them. As well as the end of season play off weekend at iceSheffield - which features the top 4 teams in the division - Widnes have now also qualified for the promotion/relegation game with the second bottom team in the Moralee Conference, although details of the timing and format of that contest have yet to be announced.
This all represents an excellent achievement for Ollie Barron in his first ever season as a coach.
After the game he said: “It was good to finally get back on home ice after a run of away games. We started off well, taking a 5-1 lead - it was good to see all lines putting in the effort and playing good fast flowing hockey.
" I felt we took our feet off the gas a little and allowed Hull back into the game - not taking anything away from Hull as they have shown they are a dangerous team finishing the puck.
"Overall, I was happy with the 2 points and the win to secure 2nd spot – however, we must play for a full 60 minutes in our remaining games and playoffs.”
The Wild are at home again next Sunday 19th March when the entertain north-west rivals Altrincham Aces who are enjoying a late surge for the last play-off place. Looking ahead to that game, Barron said: “Altrincham next Sunday will be another test for the squad. These games are always high tempo games and it is one I am looking forward to. In terms of league position, in theory, we don't have much to play for but I want the team playing hard in the remaining league games in order to take some momentum into the playoffs.”