Solihull Barons 3 Nottingham Lions 2 (after penalty shots).
A heroic Nottingham Lions performance could not prevent their Midlands rivals Solihull Barons winning an epic NIHL Laidler Conference play off final, on penalty shots, at Solihull Ice Rink on Easter Monday.
After the previous night’s last gasp semi-final victory, the Lions faced the mammoth task of trying to overcome the tournament hosts and newly crowned league champions and they came agonisingly close to producing one of the shock results of the season, with an outstanding team performance, limiting the Barons’ unyielding forward lines to just two goals over sixty-five enthralling minutes.
However, Nottingham failed to convert any of their three penalty shots as Josh Bruce’s strike proved to be the difference between the two sides, as the Barons completed their domestic double.
Solihull extended their impressive winning streak to an intimidating twenty-three games, with a narrow 5-3 semi-final victory over Widnes Wild on Saturday night but despite being massive underdogs, the Lions were spurred on by the knowledge that they had already beaten Solihull on two occasions during the regular season.
The Lions had also been on a winning streak of their own, emerging the victors in their last four games, including last night’s nail biting 2-1 overtime win over the Coventry Blaze.
Once again, Nottingham came into the game missing regulars Craig Wallis, Jack Baveystock, Joe Wightman and Cameron Good but were able to call upon youngsters Joe Gretton, Connor Glossop, Sam Illsley, Joe Humphries and Kieran Raynor.
The Lions’ only change saw netminder Alan Levers make his final ever senior appearance before retirement, after he was given the nod ahead of the previous night’s semi-final hero Tom Hovell,
The veteran netminder proved to be a huge presence in the opening period, as the Barons bombarded the custodian’s goal with a total of forty-four shots but failed to find a way past the determined ‘brick wall’ that was Levers.
In contrast, Nottingham could only muster eight shots on opposing goalie Josh Nicholls but against the run of play, scored the only goal of the period, after Dan Hazeldine pounced on a defensive error to coolly find the back of the Barons’ net, with just over a minute remaining.
Solihull’s relentless waves of attacking pressure finally told four minutes into the second period, when Connor Hubbuck equalised for the hosts.
Anyone who thought that this could trigger the floodgates to open for the Barons, were quickly proved wrong when as yesterday’s game-winning hero Slawomir Kasprzak put the Lions back in front just four minutes later, following a short burst of goalmouth pressure from his team mates.
The game had certainly become much more of an even affair as the period wore on, with chances now coming thick and fast at both ends and on thirty-five minutes, Solihull levelled matters once again, this time via the stick of Richard Slater.
When the inaugural Laidler play offs were first announced in the new year, they drew much criticism in some quarters for their format and scheduling but what has proved to be a massively entertaining and successful weekend continued into a tense third period, which saw chances for both teams to win the game but neither side could add to their tallies, as the game moved into five minutes of sudden death overtime.
Nottingham spent two of those five minutes desperately defending their goal after Ben Wood picked up the Lions’ first penalty call of the evening for slashing.
However, the Lions managed to weather the storm and then almost went on to win the game in the dying seconds but Hazeldine’s one-on-one effort was pushed away by Nicholls to deny Matt Bradbury’s side a fairytale ending.
Sadly, it was a penalty shoot-out to forget for Nottingham, as they failed to convert any of their three attempts at goal.
Connor Glossop couldn’t find a way past Nicholls before Bruce fired home past Levers.
American Luke Branin then also drew a blank for the Lions, with Levers then giving his side some hope after denying Joe Henry but Hazeldine’s shot was stopped by the impressive Solihull netminder, sealing victory for the Barons.
Nicholls’ save brought about the final action of the Lions’ 2013/14 season and despite finishing their campaign without silverware, Nottingham can be rightly proud of their achievements, which has seen a team filled with young players, many of them playing in their first season of senior hockey, finish in a respectable fourth-place in the league and take the champions right to the wire, in a what was a pulsating cup final, which will be remembered for many years to come.
The future certainly looks bright for the Lions as these promising youngsters gain more valuable experience with each game and September is sure to see that young side look to go one better in their 2014/15 campaign.
Dan Hazeldine 1+0, Slawomir Kasprzak 1+0, Christy Johnson-Brown 0+1, Luke Branin 0+1.
Period Scores: 1st 0-1, 2nd 2-1, 3rd 0-0, OT 0-0, Pens. 1-0.
Shots: 1st 44-8, 2nd 16-13, 3rd 14-8, OT 10-1. Total: 84-30.
Penalty Mins: 1st 0-0, 2nd 2-0, 3rd 2-0, OT 0-2. Total: 4-2.
Lions MOTM: Alan Levers.