Skipper Ryan Johnson was inspirational as Sutton Sting came back from 3-1 down to beat third-placed visitors Whitley Warriors 4-3 to move into the National Ice Hockey League Moralee Conference Division One play-off spots.
Whitley travelled with 16 players but, although Sutton outnumbered them, coach Ian Johnson still had to call up Joe Cross and George Crawshaw from the U18s.
The first period saw the home team clearly making their intentions known with the majority of the play, constantly bombarding young Whitley netminder Mark Turnbull, who stood tall and kept everything out until Chris Sykes broke through the neutral zone, receiving a pinpoint pass from Simon Butterworth to neatly slot home with a little over five minutes played.
The Warriors soaked up plenty of pressure to keep themselves in the hunt and at the 15-minute mark, Daniel Harris hit a blue line rocket to beat Zimozdra under his blocker to level.
Sutton’s Chris Sykes was then sent to the box for a high stick penalty, but the Warriors couldn’t capitalise as the Sting penalty kill unit stood strong.
In the second period it was the Warriors who came out all guns blazing, with Zimozdra facing twice as many shots than his opposite number, and with 29.35 on the clock the go-ahead goal was neatly slotted home by Harris for his second goal of the game.
Sting seemingly had nothing in reply, and the hard work for the visitors paid off when Jordon Barnes increased that lead to 3-1 at 38.05.
Things needed to change for the home team ahead of the third period and coach Johnson, made some line changes and looked to his captain for some inspiration on the ice.
The final period started with some clear determination from that captain, Ryan Johnson, who knocked the stuffing out of a Whitley player only to receive a harsh two minute minor for charging.
Yet again the penalty kill line held strong, and kept out the Warriors and, with his second shift after his penalty had elapsed, MVP winner Johnson hit Sutton’s first comeback goal, after super link-up play with Butterworth at 44.22.
As if this wasn’t enough for the home crowd, less than a minute later, it was the same two key players who brought the home team level with a mirror image goal, Spurr to Butterworth, then a knee high pass across goal which Johnson smashed into the top corner at 45.21.
Momentum had clearly swung back into the Sting camp, but the Warriors still looked to get their noses back in front.
Only some fabulous net minding at both ends kept the scores level, as the pace increased.
Sting import Thomas Stuart-Dant then laced a massive hit on Jaimie Tinsley in the bottom corner which left him down on the ice. Stuart-Dant was met by two Warriors players, who were clearly upset with the hit, but the referee and linesmen did their jobs and escorted Stuart-Dant to the penalty box for a 2+10 penalty for checking to the head, leaving Sting back under pressure on the penalty kill.
Whitley looked to change things around on their powerplay, but yet again Sting stood strong.
With Stuart-Dant sitting out, Latvian import, Slav Movko was given an opportunity to join Chris Colegate and Adam Robinson on line two, and on his third shift, he broke through the Warriors’ defence to have a one-on-one dual with Turnbull. Movko faked, then hit a great slapshot straight through the young netminder’s legs at 55.42 to go 4-3 up.
The last few minutes were very tense, and when Robert Wilson was sent to the box for Whitley at 56.36 the Sting had the advantage to either try to increase their lead, or simply run down the clock.
Coach Johnson called a time out to make sure his side knew what was required, and they kept the game away from Whitley to secure a great comeback victory.
Coach Johnson said: “‘I was pretty pleased with the first period performance, but in the second Whitley were too strong for us.
“They out-worked the majority of our team, and wanted it more than we did. I changed things around for the third, and after some wise words and leading by example, our captain Ryan Johnson pulled the whole game around. He is a massive part of this team, and we miss him when he’s not available. Today he proved to everyone in our team how the right mindset, and work ethic can change a game.
“Hats off also to netminder Dmitri Zimozdra, who made three or four of the best saves you will see at any level, and at key moments in the game which could have sunk us.
“The two points pull us clear into the last play-off spot and fourth in the league. We have won our games in hand and this gives us a chance to continue putting pressure on the teams around us.”
This weekend Sting are away at Telford Titans who, although bottom of the league, are a tough team to beat on home ice.