NIHL Moralee North 1 Cup : Nottingham Lions 6 – Blackburn Hawks 10

Ahh, Nottingham, one of England’s most famous cities. It’s famous for Robin Hood, two football teams with a superiority complex, being the only place in the UK with a Hooters (if that’s your sort of thing) and a weird rumour that women outnumber men in the city by eight to one, it’s certainly an interesting place, but most importantly, it’s arguably the UK’s home of ice hockey.

It is home to Nottingham Panthers, one of the oldest ice hockey clubs in the UK, but more importantly, the most successful, with 15 trophies in their history, four more than bitter rivals Sheffield Steelers. Much like the Hawks, they have been in decline since winning the Playoffs in the 2015/16 season, but they are still well supported, but what many people in the city may not realise is that they have a second hockey team, the Lions, who play in the same building.

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 37th birthday by going to watch the Panthers with some friends from the city, and none of them seemed to know about the Lions, which is a massive shame. With a bit more interest from fans, the Lions could become more than just the division’s equivalent to an (on-paper) easy two points.

There’s always that one team in the NIHL that fall into this role, and unfortunately, in recent years it has been the Lions, taking over the mantle previously held by the Manchester Minotaurs, Telford Titans (for a season) and Sheffield Senators. Even when at arguably their lowest point since the double-double era, the Hawks always secured wins against the team in this position, and the Lions were already off to an early poor start, losing both of their opening games, firstly 6-4 to the Barons, before then suffering 7-2 at the hands of the Wild.

Now, before I begin, please note that I had to rely on the Youtube feed for this game. I was hoping to attend, but the trains around Reading (where I am currently working) were facing major issues, so I ended up not being able to get to Nottingham on time. It also turns out that the Lions forgot to turn on the cameras at the beginning of the feed, and there was no commentary, so if I sound vague with some details about who is who, that is why.

The coverage of the game started on 1:37, and by that point, the Lions were already 1-0 up. Their goal came on 45 seconds as Yokoyama enjoyed a start to a productive night as he hit home from a Crowston assist. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you more than that.

When the coverage did start, it was the home side that seemed well on top, with the Hawks having to spend a lot of time in their own zone, with Shaw having an effort from the left well saved by Smith in the Hawks net. Other than that, the opening was a back-and-forth encounter, but with very few actual chances. Hawks had a few potshots, with only a close-range effort from Wainwright troubling Sheldon in the Lions’ net.

The Lions were far more competitive than they have been in recent years and were causing the Hawks several problems, so it came as little surprise as they doubled their lead on 8:08. Newell picked up the puck following a poor effort from Cairney-Witter to clear the puck and seemingly had the freedom of the Hawks zone as none of the four Blackburn players got anywhere near him as he slotted home to Smith’s glove side.

Whilst being 2-0 down to the team at the bottom of the league isn’t ideal, it wasn’t the first time in recent years that the Lions have taken an early two-goal lead and the Hawks have come back to win, but this Nottingham team seemed far more determined that in recent years and came close to making it 3-0 after yet again easily drifting into the Hawks’ zone, albeit without getting a shot off.

That proved a mini-turning point as despite losing Revesz to a hooking call, it wasn’t long before the Hawks scored a short-handed goal. Sloppy possession by the Lions in the Hawks zone saw Novak dispossess a Nottingham player and race clear and smashing it into Sheldon’s net. Sometimes you just need a bit of luck, and this was it.

From this, Lions flooded the Hawks zone, but again gave the puck away as a Hawks player (who I can’t make out) made a similar breakaway to Novak, but he couldn’t hit home and in the follow-up, Shaw had a chance to restore the two-goal advance as he broke through one-on-one with Smith, but the goalkeeper stood his ground and saved relatively comfortably. From the rebound, the puck eventually fell to Fisher, who again could only hit it straight at Smith from less than a metre out. Newell was the next to get close to Smith without really being challenged by the Hawks defence, but again, the Hawks’ keeper kept the Hawks to within a goal. The Hawks were starting to push their luck somewhat.

There is an old saying in football that “you’re going to regret those missed chances”, and it wasn’t long before the Hawks drew level. Riddoch picked up the puck outside of the Lion’s zone, and it eventually found its way to Novak, who hit his second of the night.

17 in-game seconds later, the Hawks completed the come-back as a Lions attack broke down, and the Hawks rushed with it down the right before it eventually fell to Valusiak, and he hit it past a despairing Sheldon.

It was almost a quick-fire fourth, but Sheldon denied a Hawks player (I couldn’t quite make out who) from close range, but now it was Hawks who were well on top and after some good work at the back, a shot from Novak was blocked, but the puck fell to Riddoch and he had an open net, and James Riddoch just doesn’t miss those.

After a period where Hawks could have easily gone in with a four/five-goal deficit, they were suddenly going in two to the good.

The second period started pretty much as the first had ended, with the Hawks enjoying the majority of the puck, although Smith had to be alert in the Hawks net. Just over two minutes after the period began, the Hawks extended their lead after some high-pressure attacking play that saw quickfire goalmouth scrambles and slapshots before Parson’s finally poked in at close range to gave the Hawks a 5-2 lead. At this point, it was starting to just be a question of how many times the puck would end up in the Lions’ net as the Hawks had scored five in just under six minutes of in-game play.

The body language of the Lions suggested that even they didn’t think that they could close the gap either, but they did vitally keep the Hawks from making it 6 fairly quickly as they caught up to Jean-Jacque as he broke down the left.

Out of nowhere, a pass sliced open the Hawks defence and saw  Yokoyama through on goal, and the 20-year-old had no problem rounding Smith to bring Lions’ to within 2. The Swiss right-winger was at it again just over a minute later as an interception whilst the Hawks were attacking saw Newell race forward with the puck, all before it eventually fell to Yokoyama, and he hit his third of the night and suddenly, Hawks’ comfortable 3 goal lead was down to one.

Hawks came close again to widening the gap again with some decent breaks, only to then hit them all at the goalkeeper. Other than that, it was fairly back and forth for a while, without either keeper really truly being tested, but that all changed on 33:20.

One consistent issue with the Hawks since they returned to action in the new era is establishing a healthy enough lead, only to then lose it. The games against Widnes and Solway saw this, with differing end results, and it happened for a third weekend in a row as Yokoyama got his fourth of the evening.

It came following a face-off near the Lions goal from which Pollitt had his shot pushed wide by Sheldon, and from that the puck found its way to Yokoyama as he skipped past Ruddick and he gave Smith no chance from the right. Hawks’ three-goal advantage was gone, with Yokoyama near single-handedly carrying the game for his team.

It could have been 6-5 to the Lions near straight from the resulting face-off as they again broke through the Hawks defence, but they couldn’t get any troublesome shots off, either going wide or straight at Smith. This Lions team were proving to be far from pushovers, and if Hawks were going to go on and win the game, they were going to have to work for it. At this point, you wouldn’t want to bet who would go on to win the game.

Just before the end of the second, the Hawks did retake the lead with their second short-handed goal of the night as Valusiak got his second. The Lions were on yet another attack when they took too long on the puck and Valusiak intercepted it. With near enough the whole pad to work with, it would have been easy to overthink the situation, but fortunately, that wasn’t the case and he successfully prodded it home, seemingly between Sheldon’s legs.

This late goal to go into the second period ahead in the lead seemed to spur on the Hawks, who came out on the attack in the third, coming close to extending their lead against a Lions side that now seemed deflated following on from getting themselves level, only to throw it away.

It was little surprise when the Hawks did eventually score what would turn out to be the winning 7th goal, with Novak completing his hattrick on 44:36. It came after Wainwright easily evaded several defenders before playing in Novak, who had little trouble hitting it home from a central position.

Nottingham thought they had reduced the gap to a single goal again as Shaw tipped a Newell pass into the net, but with significant interference on Smith, the goal was ruled out instantly. The Lions certainly weren’t giving up, but effort can only get you so far and it was still the Hawks enjoying most of the possession.

The goal gap increased to 3 pretty quickly as the ever-green Aaron Davies hit home following assists from Parsons and Wainwright in a goalmouth scramble. Honestly, it’s hard to tell on the feed exactly what happened, but what I know for sure is that the red light went off and Hawks celebrated making it 8-5 on 47:42.

It didn’t stay 8-5 for long, just 24 in-game seconds to be precise. It was the same Parsons/Wainwright/Davies combination again that created the goal. Parsons intercepted a wayward pass on the edge of the Lions’ zone, his pass fell to Wainwright, who played in Davies and he had the freedom of the back-post to hit home, which he duly did. 9-5.

Whilst no lead in this new Hawks era has seemed safe, a four-goal advantage with just over ten minutes to go against the league’s bottom side isn’t far off, and it wasn’t long before the Lions pulled Sheldon, replacing him with Lowden. It’s not often that a keeper it replaced in any sport, but with a 74.29% save rate, you can’t really blame them for replacing Sheldon.

Whilst not immediate, this seemed to give the Lions a minor boost as Ricci hit his first of the night, adding to his assist for Yokoyama’s fourth.  Whether it was deserved or not is a whole other debate as the Hawks had generally been in control for the whole period, but the goal on 52:41 was unlikely to be more than just a consolation goal, so in the end, it didn’t really matter.

The Lions’ sixth of the night came whilst on the power play, with Jean-Jacque in the box for tripping. It came after some possession play down the left and eventually saw it head into the middle of the Hawks’ zone, and there was Ricci to hit it home without a serious attempt from any defender to close him down.

This didn’t really change the flow of the game as the Hawks continued to have the majority of possession, albeit having few shots to show for it, but one that did came on 57:23 when Novak got his fourth of the night, with assists from Cairney-Witter and Pollitt. The puck had made its way into the Lions’ zone, but the home side failed to clear and some interplay saw the puck fall to Novak, who used the momentum of Lowden to wrong-foot him, giving the Hawks a 10-6 lead.

That’s how the game ended, and saw the Hawks side fourth in the early table after most sides have played twice. Also, the last time that the Hawks won 10-6 at the team who will (probably) finish bottom, they ended up finishing second and reaching the Playoff Final, which I’m sure we’d all be happy with this year. 

Blackburn Hawks