The RTL sponsored Widnes Wild rounded off their Laidler Conference league season with a closely contested – and very entertaining – 3-2 win over Bradford Bulldogs at Silver Blades Widnes on Sunday.
With the Wild having already secured the runners up spot in the league and Bradford confirmed as 7th, neither team had anything to play for in terms of the standings – but you certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell that from this tense game.
Considering the fact that the three previous games played between these two teams had produced 28 goals in total (Widnes 21 – Bradford 7), you might have expected this to be a bit of a one-sided end of season goal fest but that was not the case. In fact, Bradford actually outshot Widnes in both the 1st and 2nd periods and did not look anything like a “bottom half of the table” team for the entire game.
After a very close and even opening, Widnes eventually took the lead on 14 minutes exactly when, taking advantage of a delayed penalty call against a Bradford player, Bobby Caunce fired home from a Stuart Brittle cross.
The score remained 1-0 at the first break and the second period continued in the same vein as the first with very little to pick between the two teams. If anything, Bradford actually looked better in the second period than they did in the first and they equalised just 4 minutes in.
They then went on to score again and take the lead 4 minutes after that, taking full advantage of a mix up in the Widnes defence, and looked very good for their lead at that time. The Wild continued to battle on and had two powerplay opportunities in the second period but were unable to find any sort of reply.
The third period saw a huge turnaround in fortunes and Widnes looked much sharper both in defence and attack. A couple of quick fire penalties saw first Wild’s Bez Hughes and then Bulldogs’ import Stefan Pristas both banished for 2 minutes each. Wild’s Stuart Brittle won the face off in the Bradford defensive zone and fired in a shot on goal. The netminder blocked the shot but the puck fell into the path of player coach Ollie Barron, who slotted away the equaliser.
Passions were rising on both sides now and, straight from the restart, a fight broke out between Widnes enforcer Andrew Turner and Bulldogs’ Miles Dacres, who both received two minutes for roughing.
With 46.55 on the clock, Wild’s Czech import Pavel Vales fired in one of his trademark rocket shot / passes from out on the right point and found Bobby Caunce who was just in the right position to the left of goal to slide the puck past the netminder and edge Widnes back into the lead.
Now Widnes were in full control of the game and looked as if they would score again at any moment. Caunce was causing the Bradford defence all sorts of problems and, at 53.48, when a shot bounced back off the post and a Bradford player dropped down onto it to freeze the play, a penalty shot was awarded for delaying the game.
Ollie Barron stepped up to take the shot which, had it gone in – as well as doubling the Wild’s lead for the game – would also have drawn him level as the league’s top scorer for the season overall but, as it happened, the Bradford netminder denied him with fine block.
The remaining 6 minutes were incredibly tense with Widnes peppering the Bradford goal with shots and the Bulldogs defence doing well to keep them out. At the same time, Bradford looked very dangerous on the breakaway and still looked dangerous in attack.
The minutes ticked away and, with 37 seconds left in the game, Bradford called a 30-second time out to explore the option of pulling their netminder and bring on an extra attacking player to try and force a late goal. They didn’t manage to keep the puck down the Widnes end, however, and the opportunity did not arise – with the game finishing 3-2 to the Wild.
The resulting two points saw Widnes move to within 1 point of champions Blackburn Eagles at the top of the Laidler Conference table, although the Eagles still have one game outstanding, which they are unable to play and which is likely to be awarded as a draw. That would mean that Widnes, with 43 points, would finish 2 points behind the league champions – by far the closest league finish in any NIHL division for several seasons.
Two assists in the game for Stuart Brittle saw him confirmed with the highest number of assists in the Laidler Conference for the season with 40 – narrowly overtaking Hull Jets’ top overall points scorer Richard Haggar’s tally of 39.
After the game, Wild Player Coach Ollie Barron said:
“The first 2 periods were extremely frustrating. It was clear that the effort level was there, but we were guilty of overplaying in the wrong areas and making the wrong decisions. Bradford have been difficult opposition for us this season and all credit to them. They only have a small team in term of squad numbers, but they played well, took their chances and frustrated us.”
“In the third period, we stepped it up a level and got back basics, making the easy pass and playing for each other. It was a scrappy game, however, we still got the two points, and that’s the sign of a good team – not playing particularly well but securing the 2 points.”
“I’d like to congratulate Greg Ruxton on reaching 100 appearances for the Wild. It’s a great achievement for Greg – who is a true team player.”
Having finished second in the Laidler Conference table, the Wild have qualified to play in the promotion play-off game for the third season in a row. The game will be played as a one-off match next Sunday 2nd April at the neutral venue of Blackburn Arena. The opponents will be the team that finishes second from bottom in the NIHL North Moralee Conference and that issued has not yet been decided. If the Moralee’s bottom team Deeside Dragons win their final game of the season away at Blackburn Hawks next Saturday, they will climb to second bottom in the table and feature in the play-off game. If they lose or draw the match, they will remain bottom of the table in the automatic relegation position and the ice-Sheffield based Sutton Sting will contest the play-off match instead.
Sunday 26th March 2017 – Laidler Conference
Widnes Wild 3 – Bradford Bulldogs 2
Period Scores: 1-0, 0-2, 2-0
Shots on Goal: Widnes 43 – Bradford 34 (10-11, 12-15, 21-8)
Penalties In Minutes: Widnes 6 – Bradford 12
Widnes Scoring: Bobby Caunce 2+0, Ollie Barron 1+1, Stuart Brittle 0+2, Pavel Vales & Will Barron both 0+1