Widnes lost out 20-5 on aggregate to the Whitley Warriors in the 2015 Promotion match (Photo by Geoff White)
The Widnes Wild Ice Hockey team has enjoyed considerable success in recent seasons, having won three play off titles and also the League title – but one area in which they have yet to make any sort of inroads is the promotion play off game, in which they have taken part on three occasions and have yet to be victorious.
The Wild’s first involvement in the promotion game – or, to give it its correct title The Promotion/Relegation Play Off – came at the end of the 2014/2015 season when they had finished a very creditable fourth in the Laidler Division table.
At the time, the League rules called for a team that had finished second in the Laidler Division to play off against the team that finished second bottom in the higher Moralee Division, home and away over two legs, with the winner playing in the higher division the following season. Because of a re-structuring of the League that season, two teams – Solihull Barons and Telford Tigers – both gained automatic promotion from the Laidler Division. Sheffield Senators finished third and, because of complicated arrangement between the various teams at their Sheffield home venue, were not eligible for promotion so Widnes, with their fourth place finish, were invited to take part in the promotion game.
It has long been widely acknowledged that there is a significant gap in team strength and playing standards between the two NIHL North Divisions, so the likelihood of a Widnes side who had only finished in fourth place in the Laidler Division having much of a chance against a Moralee Division side – even one who had only managed to finish second bottom of the League – was rather remote.
The tie saw the Wild paired up against the Whitley Warriors, who have a long and distinguished history going back to the 1950s and who have always produced a superb batch of home-grown players.
Promotion / Relegation Play Off 2015 (Two Legs)
11th April 2015 (at Planet Ice Widnes) – Widnes Wild 3 – Whitley Warriors 9
12th April 2015 (at Whitley Bay) – Whitley Warriors 11 – Widnes Wild 2
In the home leg – played at Widnes on the Saturday – the game began at a furious pace but early goals from a skilled and physical Whitley Warriors, put the home side on the back foot. Despite a number of great stops from Great Britain Ladies netminder, Nicole Jackson, the power and accuracy of the visitors’ shots, took the game away from Widnes and it was Whitley’s ability to quickly change defence into attack, which was the home side’s undoing. A disappointingly small crowd, including a noisy visiting contingent, were shocked by a 0-4 first interval lead.
Two goals inside the opening three minutes of the second period, appeared to prompt a netminding change for Wild, with Greg Ruxton taking his place between the pipes.Wild opened their scoring on 23 minutes, with the influential Bobby Caunce finding the net, assisted by Filip Supa and Shaun Dipnall. However Ruxton couldn’t prevent a remarkable goal from Adam Reynolds at 24.07. From there on in, a rejuvenated Wild took the game to their renowned opponents. In the 26th minute Shaun Dipnall added a second for the Wild on the powerplay. End to end play brought the crowd to their feet but it was the visitors who added an eighth goal in the 39th minute – Greg Ruxton making a brilliant reaction save but the resulting rebound being fired high into the net by Martin Crammond.
The final period saw two tiring sides, matching one another in goals with Ben Richards scoring from close in for the Warriors and Bez Hughes adding a final goal for the Wild. The dominance of the visitors was emphasised in the period shots on goal totals – 26 to 11 in favour of the Warriors.
Sunday’s return leg saw a determined Widnes team open well. Greg Ruxton was selected in goal and, despite confusion in the Wild defence leading to a Dean Holland opener for Whitley in the 2nd minute, the visitors grew in confidence. Daniel Bullock was put clear by Sam Dunford in the eighth minute and he rounded netminder Mark Turnbull to equalise. A big and noisy Wild visiting support nearly lifted the roof. Their noisy encouragement was in evidence throughout. Within three minutes Wild took a sensational lead when some fine interpassing from Dipnall and Caunce led to Filip Supa finding the net. Widnes held the lead until the last seconds of the first period when a low shot beat a screened Greg Ruxton.
Netminder Ruxton produced real heroics in the seond period, foiling dozens of Warriors raids but he was beaten by several shots coming through a crowd of players. With the end of second period score at 6-2, Wild battled hard on tiring legs to shut down a home team keen to add to their goals total. After taking an incredible 64 shots, Greg Ruxton gave way to Nicole Jackson to see out the last ten minutes. Although heavily outshot, Widnes battled through to the end with Bez Hughes and George Crawshaw close to scoring in the last three minutes.
Promotion / Relegation Play Off 2016 (Single Game)
16th April 2016: at Blackburn Arena
Sheffield Spartans 5 – Widnes Wild 0
Following their second place finish in the Laidler Division table behind champions Deeside Dragons at the end of the 2015/2016 season, the Wild once again qualified for a promotion play off place. This time the opponents were the Sheffield Senators but, on this occasion, due to a lack of ice time available at iceSheffield for the away game, it was agreed to play the match as a one-off tie at a neutral venue – in this case, Blackburn Arena.
This was the first time that a promotion playoff had ever been played as one-off game in this country and it attracted attention from across the ice hockey world, with live coverage on NIHL Radio and lots of fans of other teams going to Blackburn to watch the game.
As things turned out, fortune favoured the Moralee Conference side as the Spartans took the lead as early as the 3rd minute and never really looked like losing after that. They outshot the Laidler Conference runners up by 40 to 24 and picked up what was their first win since the middle of January.
Widnes – despite having prepared well for the tie with recent NIHL North Cup games against Moralee opposition in the shape of Blackburn Hawks, Solway Sharks and Billingham Stars – were unable to make any impression on a stubborn Spartans defence and endured their only competitive shut-out of the season.
Promotion / Relegation Play Off 2017 (Single Game)
2nd April 2017 (at Blackburn Arena)
Deeside Dragons 4 – Widnes Wild 3 (after Overtime)
The Wild’s last foray into the promotion game brought with it their closest result to date. The team were buzzing following their first ever trophy win in the Laidler Division Play Offs and, with the promotion game pitting them against local rivals Deeside Dragons, there was much to play for. Once again, the match was played as a single winner-takes-all tie at Blackburn Arena.
It was the third time in 3 seasons that Widnes had qualified for the promotion game, having lost 5-0 to Sheffield Spartans in a one-off game played at Blackburn last season and 20-5 on aggregate over two legs to Whitley Warriors back in 2015.
As might be expected for a game of such importance, the opening phase saw some robust plays by both teams and a number of penalties were handed out before the Dragons took the lead through Jordan Bannon in the 6th minute.
Towards the end of the 1st period, Wild’s Danny Bullock had to leave the game injured after a clash with Dragons’ Simon Furnival who was given a match penalty. This handed the Wild a 5 minute powerplay and then Deeside picked up a 2 minute penalty for too many men on the ice which gave Widnes a 5 on 3 advantage – and they made the most it with Bobby Caunce scoring a fine goal on 18.42 to level the score.
Despite starting the second period with a man advantage, Widnes were unable to make any further headway on their powerplays and a goal by former Widnes player Filip Supa put Deeside back into the lead 2-1 on 23.12.
The lead did not last long however and Wild equalised again on exactly 29 minutes after Nick Manning carried the puck into the Dragons’ zone and, with no passing options, just dumped it towards the goal and it sneaked inside the post past netminder Denis Bell.
The Dragons continued to pick up minor penalties and Widnes put huge pressure on the Dragons goal on the powerplay – but then, on 36 minutes, the Dragons raced down the other end and Jordan Bannon fired past Matt Croyle in the Wild net to make it 3-2. The Wild players’ heads did not go down, however, and on 38.45, Wild player coach Ollie Barron fired in a fierce shot which rebounded off Bell and Bez Hughes fired in to equalise for the third time.
With the scores tied at 3-3 after 60 minutes of play, the game went into a 5 minute period of sudden death overtime where the first team to score a goal would win the game. Overtime is played with just 3 skaters on the ice from each team instead of the usual 5, with no imports allowed.
The Dragons put the Wild goal under extreme pressure and it took several great saves by Croyle to keep Widnes in the game. They seemed to have weathered the storm and a fierce shot from Andrew Turner rattled the Dragons’ goal post but then – with just 1.50 left until the game would go to a penalty shoot-out, Wild’s Stuart Brittle picked up a 2 minute slashing penalty.
This meant that Widnes would be a man short for the rest of the game and the pressure finally told with just 51 seconds left on the clock as the Dragons scored the winning goal that would keep them in the Moralee Conference for another season.