Nottingham Lions 7 Sheffield Senators 5
Nottingham Lions twice came from behind to earn a hard-fought victory over Sheffield Senators on Sunday evening. Joe Wightman grabbed four goals and Man of the Match Ollie Betteridge got a hat trick in an enthralling and physical contest where the points changed hands four times.
The match was like three different 20-minute games rolled into one with a tightly contested affair in the first period (2-1), followed by Sheffield dominance in the second (1-4) before the Lions really kicked into gear to outclass their opponents in the final period (4-0).
It was the Lions who applied the early pressure, with the puck barely leaving the Senators’ half in the opening minutes. But Sheffield settled down and managed to maintain some possession, with Sam Gospel called into action to save from Jonathan Kirk’s long-range shot. It was they who took the initiative in the seventh minute, with captain Steven Weeks playing the puck into Andrew Chapman whose deft flick evaded Gospel to give the visitors the lead.
The Lions went out in search of a reply, with Wightman forcing a good save from Mark Hartley after some neat play on the counter-attack, and they were rewarded for their efforts at the end of the first period when Betteridge took his first of the evening from close range after some nice work from teammates Ben Wood and Luke Branin.
And within 30 seconds the Lions had the lead after Joe Wightman opened his account, with Betteridge again involved; who looked a real handful for Sheffield’s backline.
With Sam Gospel denying Callum Rawson late in the opening period, the score remained 2-1 to the Lions going into the first break. The mood among the supporters was upbeat after the late flourish from Nottingham, and there was a feeling of optimism that they would really push on in the second period.
Again they started brightly with Hartley being kept busy in front of the Sheffield net, denying Ben Wood with a double save, and later keeping out Simon Hunt and Gareth O’Flaherty.
Despite this early pressure there was to be no breakthrough and the visitors made it 2-2 through Russian import Anton Egorov after 25 minutes, and they were ahead a couple of minutes later when Rawson added to their tally, after effective counter-attacking play.
The match looked like it was in danger of getting away from the Lions, with the Senators playing with bags of confidence. They were celebrating again at the midway point of the game as Simon Manning played the puck out from the back and Rawson ran the length of the rink before coolly finishing to complete a spectacular double.
Rawson and his team were proving to be deadly on the break and down the other end Simon Hunt was unfortunate to see his speculative effort cannon off of the outside of the post.
However, worse was yet to come for the home side, with Sheffield adding a fifth goal two minutes later with an audacious long range effort from Jamie Pyewell on 35 minutes.
Much to the joy of the spectators the Lions threw themselves a lifeline going into the second interval when Wood played Betteridge through who expertly took his second of the night.
Tempers then began to boil over with some heavy challenges coming in from both sides and Simon Hunt reminding Martyn Gray he should think twice before crossing him.
There were encouraging signs for the Nottingham fans as the players from both teams exchanged words as they left the ice for a second time, indicating that Sheffield were by no means in a comfortable position.
They were clearly unsettled and Nottingham flew out of the blocks in the final part of the game and were rewarded for their early pressure with a goal inside the first minute, the perfect start for the team. Ollie Betteridge completing his hat trick with a neat finish after some impressive build-up play from his fellow front men O’Flaherty and Wightman.
Betteridge was looking dangerous every time he had the puck and was having a great game, continuing his fantastic start to the season. He turned provider four minutes later when he and O’Flaherty combined well to allow the chance for Wightman to double his tally and tie the game at 5-5, a chance he took instinctively and effectively.
The Lions were like a different team in the final period, and the Betteridge, Wightman and O’Flaherty line were simply too hot for the Senators to handle. This was clear when Wightman added another only 11 seconds later to put the Lions back in front.
The game was disrupted with a long delay in the 48th minute when Luke Branin was judged to have used an elbow, much to the disgust of the home fans. Bizarrely, Branin was given a five-minute penalty, but then sent off once he had gone to the penalty box for game misconduct in a confusing sequence of events.
The Lions were unfazed, and continued to dominate and the game was put beyond doubt ten minutes from time as Michael Rose gave possession to Betteridge who showed great individual skill before setting up Wightman for his fourth and Nottingham’s seventh. Job done.
Of course there was still time for some off-the-puck action with Michael Rose and Oliver Knell exchanging blows before shaking hands moment later, but predictably they then receiving their marching orders from the referee. Thomas Humphries also left the action prematurely with an apparent arm injury.
That was to be the end of the tale in an exhibition of incredibly entertaining hockey from two sides that pushed each other all the way and provided both sets of supporters with plenty to be optimistic about; including the mouth-watering return fixture between the sides on Saturday night at Ice Sheffield, where the Lions will be looking to continue their fine start to the season.
LionsTV interviews with players and coaches from both teams will follow later this evening……
Ben Wood, 0+2; Michael Rose, 0+1; Oliver Betteridge, 3+4; Luke Branin, 0+1; Joe Wightman, 4+1; Gareth O’Flaherty, 0+3.
Period Scores: 1st: 2-1, 2nd: 1-4, 3rd: 4-0.
Penalty Mins: 1st: 8-6, 2nd: 6-8, 3rd: 63-31. Total: 77-45.
Lions’ MOTM (sponsored by The Castle): Ollie Betteridge.