Billingham Stars face the toughest weekend of their season so far in National Ice Hockey League (N) One.
Tonight they take on table toppers Solway Sharks in Dumfries followed tomorrow by a home game against last weekend’s conquerors Sutton Sting at the TFM Radio Ice Arena.
After suffering a setback last Saturday with a season’s first road loss against Sutton, Billingham go into this weekend’s fixtures knowing nothing less than a maximum haul of four points is enough to keep the heat on title rivals Solway.
The Sharks hold a single point advantage but have a game in hand, which means the Stars realistically need to win to put the pressure back on the Dumfries-based outfit.
The Teessiders championship challenge faltered at Ice Sheffield with a short bench, and with coach Simon Leach still missing key personnel this weekend’s matches could not be more daunting.
Adam Robinson, Scott Ward and Marty Davies return to the squad having recovered from a virus, meaning Leach himself should not need to ice as he did against Sutton.
On Saturday Billingham make the trip north with a large contingent of travelling fans to take on Solway Sharks.
The Sharks have jumped from runaway League Two champions last year to this season’s team to beat.
With only one loss all season at home to the Stars in September, Solway look comfortable in top spot and the title is now theirs to lose.
Strong all over the ice, the danger up front is evident with Adam Reynolds, Nathan Salem and Mark Gallagher in the top six points scorers.
Should the offensive threat not prove enough, Solway are backed up by the outstanding Gary Russell in nets, and the Sharks defence has conceded just 23 goals in 16 games. Billingham were at their absolute best to overcome Solway in their last visit to the Shark Tank, only a repeat performance will see the Stars come away with the points.
On Sunday Billingham are back at the Forum seeking to avenge last Saturday’s 6-3 defeat by Sutton Sting.
After an indifferent start to the season, Sutton has bolstered their squad and turned in some impressive recent results to find themselves sitting comfortably in the final play-off slot and challenging Blackburn Hawks for third place.
The Sting are more comfortable on home ice with just two road wins so far – their last visit to the TFM Radio Ice Arena ended in a 5-2 victory for the Stars – however they have got noticeably stronger since signing ex-Hull Stingrays right winger Chris Sykes and netminder Dmitri Zimozdra just before Christmas.
Both were key figures last weekend, Sykes grabbing two goals and Zimozdra keeping Billingham at bay, conceding just three goals from 53 shots faced.
Leach knows that this weekend is crucial to the Stars title aspirations.
He said: “We have probably our toughest weekend of the season, the results of these games will be pivotal in deciding the title.
“We are stronger than last weekend with some players returning so I will be able to concentrate on running the bench and the lines may be more like we are used to.
“We face two very good sides within twenty four hours of each other – we know it’s going to be tough, but we beat Solway convincingly in Scotland earlier in the season and we have also beat Sutton in Billingham twice already this season.”
Billingham travel to face league leaders Solway Sharks in Dumfries in National Ice Hockey League (N) One next Saturday (face off 7pm).
Sutton Sting visit the TFM Radio Ice Arena next Sunday (face off 6.30pm).
Tickets can be bought from the box office from 5.30pm on game night, match night prices £7 adults, £4 concessions, £20 family [2+2].