Although they are officially eliminated from AIHL Playoff contention, the Sydney Bears still have a handful of games left to play this season – one of those games was against the Newcastle North Stars, who are viewed as a darkhorse to sneak into the top four and secure a spot to compete for the Goodall Cup.
In order to secure that spot, the Newcastle North Stars not only needed to win against the Perth Thunder and Sydney Bears – but they needed the two teams ahead of them, the Sydney Ice Dogs and Adelaide Adrenaline, to suffer defeats. Fortunately for the North Stars, Lady Luck appeared to be on their side – as the Ice Dogs fell to the Thunder and Adelaide walked away from Melbourne pointless. After winning against Perth on Saturday, the North Stars were looking to back up strongly against the lowly Sydney Bears – and they did exactly that.
After making the near two-hour trip up the Pacific Motorway for my first experience at the Hunter Ice Skating Stadium, I found myself in another world – not only a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but a world where hockey is loved. I was greeted outside by avid ice hockey fans, who were not only clearly very passionate about their Newcastle North Stars – but they were also incredibly respectful toward all the Sydney Bears’ fans who had donned their jerseys and made the trip up the coast. There truly is a great culture up in Newcastle, one that has to be
seen experienced to be believed. They mightn’t be the loudest crowd in the AIHL, but Newcastle faithful and Marty The Moose have a culture that will keep hockey alive in The Hunter Valley for many years to come. Aside from being absolutely delighted by the locals, I did also watch a fairly entertaining game of hockey.
If you were to look at the game based purely based on the goals alone, you would think it was very one-sided. But for twenty-five minutes of hockey, the Sydney Bears were keeping pace with the North Stars – but their undoing was their inability to source more than 12 players to put on the ice. Be it the AIHL restrictions preventing ECSL players being called up, or players simply being unavailable, the Sydney Bears just didn’t have the legs to keep up with Newcastle North Stars for the full 50 minutes. Full credit to the Sydney Bears players who were undermanned for both games this weekend, I have no doubt they would have been exhausted by the end of it.
The game was very characteristic of both teams, as the Newcastle North Stars for large portions of the game were able to show off their defensive prowess – while the Sydney Bears, as per usual, were able to show their inability to play team defense. However, in this game, the Newcastle North Stars did do something very uncharacterist – they scored on the powerplay. Heading into the weekend, the North Stars powerplay was operating at a god-awful 15% (which is good enough for worst in the league for those of you playing at home) – but on Sunday night, the were perfect and scored three powerplay goals on three attempts.
The first Newcastle goal, scored on the powerplay by Chris Wilson, was scored close to six minutes into the first minute after the Sydney defense was unable to provide their goaltender (Palmqvist) with the support he needed. This goal wasn’t the only time the North Stars were able to beat the Swedish netminder, who returned early from what was rumoured to be a torn pectorial muscle, as the Chris Wilson was at it again – this time, assisting on a powerplay goal scored by Cody Danberg with a little over four minutes left in the first period. At this point of the game, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking “oh no, not again…” – but before the negativity set in, there was glimour of hope as Newcastle’s Nick Orford was sent to the penalty box for two minutes for high-sticking. I mean sure the Newcastle North Stars might have the most effective penalty kill in the entire AIHL, but they weren’t prepared tonight – as with 1:43 left in the first period the puck found it’s was from Di Marco, to Schlamp, to Esposito – SCOOOOORES! Ladies and gentleman, we now have a 2-1 hockey game!
After watching Marty The Moose pull off some sweet dance-moves during the first intermission, I was excited for the start of the second period – as were all the other Bear’s fans in attendance. However, after a few minutes of hockey in the second period the excitement began to wear off, as the legs of the Sydney Bears players began to slow and the Newcastle North Stars players could smell blood in the water. None more-so that Chris Wilson, who decided that a one goal lead wasn’t enough as he potted his second goal of the night – and just like that Newcastle is up 3-1. Unfortunately for the North Stars that two goal lead lasted a grand total of 21 seconds as Brett Nelson-Bond, the longest service Sydney Bear (14 years), was set up by Esposito and Austin to pull the Sydney Bears to within one goal of tying the game. At this point of the game; Sydney Bears fans were feeling hopeful that their team could overcome the odds and steal a win against the North Stars – but every Newcastle supporter in attendance knew that their boys has one thing the Sydney-siders didn’t, a full-strength team. As we got deeper into the second period you could almost see the energy levels of each Sydney player getting the better of them, and the Newcastle North Stars did what they do best – they played their systems and wore down their opposition. Before long Cody Danberg was in again, scoring Newcastles fourth goal of the night and extending their lead back to two goals. As the clock wound down it was clear that all the momentum was with the North Stars, as Matt Wetini took advantage of a tired Sydney Bears’ defence to net the fifth Newcastle goal of the night.
At this point it was all Newcastle, as they lead 5-2 at the end of two periods. But the Sydney Bears weren’t done yet, as they had one more trick up their sleeve to try and prevent the game becoming a total blowout – Fan Favourite, Future AIHL Commissioner, Dancing Sensation: Luke Read! Read replaced fellow Sydney Bears netminder Daniel Palmqvist, who allowed 5 goals on 19 shots in his return from injury, not only to give his team-mate a rest but also to carve up the ice with some sweet dance-moves. Luke Read was the highlight of the night for all the Bears’ fans in attendance, not only because of his outgoing personality shines through while he’s on the ice, but because his play was able to stop the bleeding and slow down the Newcastle offense. In 20 minutes of play Read made 18 saves – which shows how exhausted his teammates must have been, as they were simply unable to keep up with the Newcastle North Stars players who were able to keep themselves fresh thanks to having more players to rotate on and off the ice. However those 18 saves weren’t enough to earn himself a (sort of) shutout – as his team found themselves short-handed thanks to a tripping call against Steve Austin, it became clear that Chris Wilson simply could not be stopped on Sunday, as he picked up a loose puck and was able to beat a scrambling Luke Read for his third goal of a the night to put Newcastle up 6-2.
With that result, the Sydney Bears found themselves in a familiar side of the scoreboard – but more importantly the Newcastle North Stars were able to keep their play-off dreams alive and climbed to within 4 points of the Sydney Ice Dogs for the final spot remaining to compete for the Goodall Cup. Best of luck to the Newcastle North Stars in their quest to return to AIHL glory – and best of luck to Luke Read and the Sydney Bears in rebuilding themselves into a more competitive side before the start of next season.