The BCD Solway Sharks made the long road trip down the M6 to Shropshire on Saturday for their top-of-the-table clash with the Telford Tigers and, after an enthralling match, returned home with their first competitive defeat of the season as the home side ran out victors by five goals to three.
Telford Tigers undoubtedly have the best first line in the league and are favourites, on paper, to win the division, but this game is played on ice and the Sharks had other ideas in mind as the game began. Unfortunately, on the day, Solway began the game by giving the Tigers too much time and space on the puck and after the initial skirmishes the home side began to control a greater share of possession and territory.
Gradually the pressure began to build and the home side duly took the lead in the sixth minute when Miller and Plant combined on a two-on-one breakaway with Miller supplying the perfect pass for Plant (05:24) to score at the far post. The Tigers continued to attack and scored a second goal when the first line of Miller, Plant and Silverthorn (08:14) again combined well to leave the latter with a tap-in.
It was looking ominous for the Sharks at this point but gradually their spirit and confidence began to return as they took a larger share of possession with Bowie, Moore and Houston all causing the home defence problems. With a little under three minutes to go in the opening period Solway got the reward that their spirited revival deserved. Pouncing on a defensive error Stevie Moore and Ross Murray combined well to allow ace sniper Iain Bowie (17:31) to fire home the Sharks first goal from close in on the left.
Before the Solway travelling support were back in their seats they were cheering again. Quick thinking matched by accurate passing between Joe Coulter and Ross Murray again opened up space on the left for Iain Bowie (18:03). This time netminder Denis Bell got a good glove on the Solway forward’s powerful shot but he could only look on in anguish as the puck looped from his glove into the back of the net.
The second session began with little to separate the two teams. Both sides prodded and searched for a chink in the oppositions defence but were largely denied and both netminders Denis Bell and Calum Hepburn were on top form when the defences were breached. It was going to take something special to break the deadlock and Jordan Stokes (32:11) provided the magic with an excellent back-handed wrist shot from the slot that found its way into the top corner of the Sharks net.
The Sharks attempted to rally and had several chances to level the scores but were denied by excellent saves from Denis Bell while at the other end Calum Hepburn made one superb save when he dived full-length across his goal to save from Miller. Solway continued to press and were rewarded when Iain Bowie (38:48) broke free from the attentions of Rose and closed in on Bell’s goal. Deftly the Sharks marksman faked a move to his left before he moved the puck to his right and pulled it acrobatically back into the net behind the keepers’ dive.
Right at the end of the period the home fans thought they were celebrating another goal only to discover that, while the puck did find the net, however, it only crossed the line after the buzzer had sounded to end the session.
In the third and final period the Tigers changed tactics. It can be taken as a complement to Solway’s game plan that home coach Tom Watkins restricted his team to playing two line hockey. While they kept the back door fully closed the Tigers probed and stretched the Sharks defence. In the end it was to be the Telford first line that again caused the damage as firstly blocked shots from Miller and then Watkins set up Weaver (46:31) to score with a powerful drive. The final goal of the game rivalled Bowie’s second period counter for best of the match as a superb interchange of quick passes between Miller, Plant and Silverthorn carved open the Sharks defence allowing Plant (53:01) to net his second of the game.
For the final seven minutes the Sharks tried for a third comeback but came up against a stone-wall Tigers defence as the home side made sure that the back door remained firmly closed even when they were on the offensive. In the closing minutes Bell again came to his sides rescue with an excellent pad save from Bowie and the Sharks pulled netminder Hepburn in favour of an extra forward for the last forty-seven seconds but try as they might there was just no way to comeback again.
Overall there are many positives that the Sharks can take from this first competitive defeat of the season. Firstly they travelled shot-benched with four regular players missing yet still turned in a competitive display that might, on another day, have produced a different result. At the beginning of the season everyone wondered just how much the three teams dropping down from the EPL would dominate the league. After playing both the Steeldogs and the Tigers the Sharks should now realise that, while the NIHL North will be even more competitive than last year, they do have the capability to put up a strong defence of their titles and challenge for honours again in the season ahead.