The Wild bench celebrate Bobby Caunce’s goal in the 2014 Play Off semi final against Solihull Barons (Photo by Geoff White – www.gw-images.com)
The Widnes Wild ice hockey team have a superb record when it comes to the end of season play off competitions. They hold the record for number of wins and are the only team in the division to have qualified in each of the 7 years that they have been held.
They have won the last three consecutive titles, but sadly missed out on the chance of adding a fourth this year when the playing season was finished early due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Laidler Division Play Offs were introduced for the first time at the end of the 2013/14 season – the Wild’s first season of competition – and were initially played at Solihull ice rink over the Easter weekend.
The idea – to mirror the Moralee Division Play off weekend which had been successfully held in Dumfries – was for the top four teams in the division to meet in two semi finals and a final to decide the overall winner.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2014 (at Solihull) 18-21st April 2014
Semi Final 1: Solihull Barons 5 – Widnes Wild 3
Semi Final 2: Coventry Blaze 1 – Nottingham Lions 2 (Overtime)
Final: Solihull Barons 3- Nottingham Lions 2 (PS)
The top four teams in the division at the end of the 2013/14 season were Solihull Barons, Deeside Dragons, Coventry Blaze and Nottingham Lions in that order but, as the play offs had not been agreed upon at the start of the season, Deeside declined to take part, saying that they had not budgeted for the extra expenditure. It was, therefore, decided to offer the final play off place to the team finishing 5th in the table, which served up a rather tasty last game of the season as Widnes had to travel to Hull to round off their league campaign and the winner of that game would secure 5th place.
The Wild won the crunch game against the Jets 4-7 and qualified for their first play off tournament.
This brought with it the rather daunting prospect of facing the league champion Barons on their own ice, having lost all four league meetings between the two sides over the course of the season– with a total goal tally of 47-6.
But, previous form quite often will count for nothing in these situations and a one off game in the special atmosphere of the play offs can often bring quite a shock. It took Solihull 12 minutes to break down the stubborn Widnes defence and, while they fired in a second goal late in the first period to lead 2-0 at the first break, this was a much-improved performance by the Wild team.
Sensing the opportunity for an upset, Widnes upped their game in the second period and actually drew level with goals from Ben Brown and Bobby Caunce – and the score stood at 2-2 after 40 minutes of play.
Solihull edged back into the lead on 42 minutes but Lee Pollitt scored again for the Wild to level the score at 3-3 with just 9 minutes left on the clock. However, that was as good as it got for Widnes and two late goals from the hosts sealed the semi final win for Solihull.
The other semi-final –between Coventry Blaze and Nottingham Lions was even closer and was decided by an overtime strike having finished 1-1 after 60 minutes regulation time while the resulting final between the Barons and the Lions had to be decided on Penalty Shots.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2015 (at Solihull) – 4th 5th 6th April 2015
Semi Final 1: Solihull Barons 12 – Widnes Wild 3
Semi Final 2: Telford Tigers2 5 – Sheffield Senators 1
Final: Solihull Barons 4 – Telford Tigers2 3
The 2015 Laidler Division play offs were also staged at Solihull with the Barons looking even more impressive than they had the previous season, easily retaining their league title winning all 32 of their matches and finishing 16 points ahead of runners up Telford Tigers 2 in the final league table.
Sheffield Senators finished 3rd – just two points behind Telford and Widnes finished comfortably in fourth place – with 42 points from 36 games, 8 points ahead of 5th placed Deeside Dragons.
The first semi final – played on Easter Saturday – saw the Wild pitched against the Barons once again and, once again, with a “0 and 4” record to show from their league meetings during the season.
The Wild team was somewhat depleted with several players unavailable due to injury or family commitments – including key forwards Shaun Dippnall and Bobby Caunce.
The game was played at a furious pace and Solihull took the lead in the 2nd minute. 10 minutes later it was 2-0 to the Barons and the score remained 2-0 at the first period break.
Danny Bullock pulled a goal back for Widnes in the 26th minute but, almost immediately, the 2-goal cushion was restored. Filip Supa pulled a goal back for the Wild but two more goals from the hosts made the score 5-2 at the second break.
Filip Supa scored again to pull the score back to 5-3 on 45 minutes but two Solihull goals within 30 seconds of each other quickly dashed any hopes of a late comeback. The Barons ran away with the game in the latter stages – having the benefit of 5 more skaters than Widnes – and scored 6 goals in the last 8 minutes to give the final scoreline of 12-3 a rather unrealistic reflection of the game as a whole.
The second semi final saw Telford overcome Sheffield Senators 5-1 to set up an intriguing “first v second” final against the Barons.
This scintillating game saw a 0-0 first period and then Telford winning the second period 1-3. A huge upset looked on the cards but Solihull – who outshot Telford by 74 to 29 over the course of the game – dug deep and finally managed to pull themselves back into the game, scoring the winning goal in the dying seconds.
Laidler Division Play Offs 2016 (at iceSheffield) – 9th/10th April 2016
Semi Final 1: Widnes Wild 3 – Nottingham Lions 1
Semi Final 2: Deeside Dragons 9 – Blackburn Eagles 5
Final: Deeside Dragons 5 – Widnes Wild 3
The 2016 play offs saw a new venue and a new format after Solihull Barons took promotion to play in the Moralee Division for the 2015/16 season.
A decision was taken to play both the Moralee Division play offs and the Laidler Division play offs over the same weekend at iceSheffield, with 4 semi finals taking place on the Saturday and the two finals on the Sunday.
The Laidler Division season had seen a bit of an upset after Widnes had put together a very strong team headed up by new player coach and former English Premier League player Scott McKenzie with high expectations of winning the league title.
Unfortunately a set of odd circumstances saw local rivals Deeside Dragons able to ice a much stronger side than anybody might ever have imagined due to unexpected backing from the Red Hockey media group.
The Dragons won the league title finishing 8 points ahead of Widnes who, while enjoying their best ever league position to date, were still greatly disappointed with the overall outcome. Nottingham Lions finished in third place and Blackburn Eagles came fourth to take the four places at the play off weekend.
The first semi-final saw Nottingham take a narrow 1-0 lead into the first break, however, Michal Fico equalised for Widnes and the score stood at 1-1 after 2 periods.
Geoff Wigglesworth put the Wild ahead for the first time with a powerplay goal early in the 3rd period and the result was secured by an empty net goal from Scott McKenzie after the Lions had pulled their netminder in the final minute. Widnes had won their first ever play off game at the third attempt!
The other semi saw league champions Deeside see off Blackburn Eagles 9-4 to set up a 1st v 2nd final.
Deeside took a 2-goal lead but Scott McKenzie and Pavel Vales both scored to tie the game 2-2 at the first break. A poor Widnes performance in the second saw Deeside add two unanswered goals and that left the Wild too much to catch up in the final period.
The period was very close and remained goal-less until Danny Bullock pulled a goal back with 2 minutes left to play to give the Wild some hope. They pulled netminder David Good in the hope of forcing a late equaliser, however, the Dragons scored an empty net goal for a final score of 5-3 to secure the league and play off double.
Despite having had their best ever season in terms of final league position and play off performance, there was an air of disappointment around the Wild camp, having come second in both competitions to their fierce local rivals the Deeside Dragons.
Ironically, head coach Scott McKenzie upped sticks and left Widnes during the summer to take over as player coach at Deeside. He was replaced by Ollie Barron, who would go on to lead the Widnes Wild team to the most successful period in their history to date.