GILLINGHAM, UK – Wightlink Raiders stunned the Invicta Dynamos to upset the odds and win the NIHL South Play-Offs for the first time since 2010.
Leading 3-2 from the first leg on the island, the Raiders skated out in front of a packed rink in Kent, knowing that their previous displays there had failed to inspire any confidence of an aggregate win.
The Dynamos fans had turned out in full force and the travelling contingent of Raiders fans must have been the largest in many years. It all made for a carnival atmosphere with fans of Chelmsford, Streatham and London all in attendance to watch the showpiece event of the NIHL South season.
The game started with Wightlink on the front foot but they were rocked by an early injury to star forward Alex Barker who tried to hit a Mo’s defenseman behind the net, missed and then fell onto his shoulder. It was confirmed as a dislocation and he was carried off to play no further part in the game.
The Dynamos then took control of the game and deservedly took the lead as Captain Anthony Leone skated hard down the right wing, cut inside and using the Wightlink defence as a screen, fired the puck hard into the far bottom corner of Colclough’s net to open the scoring.
Invicta then hit penalty trouble as Elliott Dewey was called for tripping and then a naughty hit in the neutral zone by Michal Oravec gave the visitors a double powerplay.
The Raiders made the advantage count as Jaroslav Cesky showed impressive awareness in centre ice to flick the puck onto Corey Watkins on the right wing and he roofed the puck past Mark Lee to make it 1-1 on the night.
The home fans were not happy with the officials and made their displeasure known, and referee Brooks made himself marginally more popular with a call on Carl Graham for holding.
The Mo’s then had a chance to score on the powerplay however Richard Facey bravely dived in front of a Billy Phillips shot and took some time to get up as a result.
Wightlink returned to full strength and Nick Compton played a beautiful lofted pass from his own zone that was picked up by Facey on the blue line and he showed incredible composure to draw out Lee and then slide the puck across to Griffiths to score.
Wightlink then got a powerplay after a harsh call on Fowler but Lee came up big to deny them from close range. Fowler then returned to the ice but showed his frustration by tangling with Tribe off the puick and Brooks sent both to the penalty box.
In the final minutes of the period, Invicta finally made a powerplay count as Huska laid the puck out to Phillips on the blue and his cannon went straight into the top corner of the net to make it 2-2 on the night.
Right at the end of the period Watkins skated across Lee’s crease and felled the Mo’s netminder which prompted Strawson to step in and both teams came together as the buzzer went.
The second period saw Invicta take control of possession again but they almost came unstuck early on as a long pass from Hobbis was picked up by Cesky, and the Wightlink forward skated in on goal before attempting a spinorama that would not have looked out of place on NHL 96 on the Sega Mega drive. Sadly for Cesky it didn’t go in and Lee made the save easily.
Invicta continued to pressurise Colclough’s goal and he came up big to deny Andy Smith, Huska and Strawson in quick succession. It seemed only a matter of time before the Mo’s would score and sure enough they did, with the tireless Oravec weaving his way through the Raiders defence, sucking in all four players and then laying the puck back to Fowler in the slot who made no mistake with the finish.
The scene was then set for the Mo’s to push on but they were starting to look a little tired at the back with their two lines of defense struggling to deal with the breakaways from the visitors.
Sure enough it was Cesky who took advantage as he blew down the right wing round the back of McNicoll and seemed to have taken the puck too far wide to draw Lee out of his goal, but then he sniped the puck into the far top corner of the net to make it 3-3.
The goal seemed to suck the wind out of the Mo’s who began to look more and more frustrated at their failure to break down the Wightlink rear-guard.
This boiled over as Oravec and Hobbis clashed on the blue line with both trading blows and getting sent to the penalty box for their troubles.
Wightlink started to get more possession as the end of the period approached, and when Larter breezed past Phillips and failed to convert it should have been a warning for the home side.
Then with less than a minute to go a speculative shot from the point by Graham was tipped past Lee by Ryan Webb to make it 4-3 on the night in the Raiders favour and 7-5 on aggregate.
Invicta Coach Kev Parrish knew his side now needed to score three goals to win, but his two lines looked weary as they started the final period in front of a crescendo of noise from both sets of fans.
An early powerplay gave the Mo’s a great chance to go ahead but the Raiders were standing firm.
The game began to develop a bit of an edge with Watkins and Griffiths hustling the Dynamos defence and Mo’s captain Leone desperately trying to get his side back into the game with his high energy fore-checking.
Griffiths and Cornish looked to have broken away through on goal but couldn’t convert on a Wightlink counter, and then Phillips found himself alone to the right of goal but his slapshot was saved by Colclough.
Oravec looked the most likely to make something happen for Invicta and he almost went coast to coast down the left wing but narrowly missed the target to the relief of Colclough.
Mo’s top scorer Fowler cut an increasingly frustrated figure and ended up being sucked into a penalty with Watkins to take away his threat to the Wightlink goal for two more vital minutes.
With just over six minutes left it was Oravec again who burst through the Raiders defence and was awarded a penalty shot by Brooks.
The Slovak then stepped up to take it himself, tried the fake on Colclough and then fired over the bar to gasps from the home crowd.
Wightlink soon enjoyed more of the puck with Cesky in particular, excellent at eating up the minutes with his puck control. The deciding goal of the game came with five minutes to go as Stevie Balmer chased down a loose puck and then fired his shot from behind the goal line off the back of Lee and into the net to make it 5-3 on aggregate and put the game beyond doubt.
That wasn’t the end of the incidents however as Watkins slashed Phillips who had come bursting into the net and the Mo’s called a time out in order to pull Lee for the extra skater. Invicta tried desperately to find a way through with the extra two bodies but Wightlink stood firm.
The Dynamos did manage to pull a goal back with just over a minute to go as Strawson finished smartly in the slot from a Huska pass, which prompted Parrish to again remove Lee from the net to try and pull the two needed goals in the space of a minute.
Unfortunately for the home support the Raiders managed to score in the empty net as a 50/50 puck contested in the neutral zone by Cesky and Phillips bounced off the Slovaks stick and rolled agonisingly down the ice and into the goal.
The Wightlink support celebrated wildly in the corner of the rink and in the following face off, with just seconds remaining, Fowler finally let his frustrations get the better of him as he cross checked his opposite number from the face-off then chased down a Wightlink defenceman on the buzzer.
This led to a large melee on the ice but thankfully cool heads prevailed in the end for the handshakes.
Not many would have given Wightlink much hope of a victory, given the slender lead they brought to Kent and the early injury to Barker; however they celebrated on the ice with the away fans jubilant and the home support dignified in defeat.
It had been a great advert for hockey at this level and a thrilling end to the NIHL season that saw three clubs win honours rather than just one.
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