Home ice momentum building for Leeds Chiefs, says Sam Zajac

LEEDS CHIEFS may only be two games into their tenure at the new Elland Road rink but coach Sam Zajac already senses momentum building on home ice.

By Phil Harrison
Monday, 10th February 2020, 6:25 am
Updated Monday, 10th February 2020, 8:27 am

After the disappointment of losing their home opener against Sheffield Steeldogs the previous week, the Chiefs made sure they would not have to wait too long to celebrate in front of another sizable – and at times raucous – home crowd.

That it came against league leaders Telford Tigers and that it also came in overtime will have made the post-match beers taste all the more sweeter.

The only downside to the 3-2 victory on Saturday night came just under 24 hours later when news came through of wins for playoff rivals Raiders IHC and Bracknell Bees.

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Leeds Chiefs' players celebrate after beating Telford tigers at home on Saturday night. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

It means the Chiefs are now 12 points adrift of the eighth and final playoff spot currently occupied by their Romford-based rivals, with Doug Sheppard’s Bracknell team now nine points better off.

Having played a second successive one-game weekend, Leeds have three games in hand on those two teams, who both have to visit Elland Road before the end of the season.

Favours are likely to be required from elsewhere around the league with the main concern being that the Chiefs – regardless of the excellent form they currently find themselves in – may run out of games to upset the odds and make it to the post-season from such an unfavourable position.

And first-season coach Zajac, for so long denied the requisite tools to make a decent fist of his team’s first-ever season in the UK game’s second tier, is convinced things are starting to fall into place.

Leeds Chiefs' Andres Kopstals makes a nuisance of himself in front of Telford goaltender Brad Day. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Zajac after his team’s come-from-behind win. “It is definitely a highlight for us this season, especially in the manner we did it too.

“I do feel a bit of momentum building here at the moment. I was quite happy with our performance against Sheffield, which might sound strange to say after a 4-1 loss, but I felt we did do ourselves justice, we outshot them, but we just couldn’t get the puck in the net.

“So the performance was there last week and then against Telford we got both the performance and the result.

“We’re getting familiar with the building and I believe the more we play here and the more we practise here, teams aren’t going to want to come here.

Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

“We’ve got a young, fast forward line coming together now, we move the puck quite well from the back end, we’re mobile and I’m convinced we’re going to cause a lot of teams a lot of problems in this building.”

The Chiefs twice came from behind to pick up their third overtime win of the season, initially left chasing the game after a power play strike from Telford’s Dominik Florian at 8.17.

Neat play between Joe Coulter and Patrik Valcak resulted in the former firing home from in front for a power play marker of the Chiefs’ own at 18.01.

A tight, goalless second period followed before Telford got their noses in front once again, this time through Finley Howells at 42.20, only for the Chiefs to prove far quicker in hitting back second time around thanks to a piledriver from defenceman Richard Bentham from just inside the blue line just under two minutes later.

That was how it stayed with Chiefs netminder Sam Gospel matching anything produced by counterpart Brad Day at the other end, the game eventually rolling into 3-on-3 overtime.

But a slashing call on Florian gave the hosts the man advantage, something they made pay off when Lewis Baldwin drifted into the Telford zone before switching the puck to Bentham on the right, from where he floated a perfectly-weighted pass for Lewis Houston to blast home from 12 yards out, lifting the majority of the 500-plus crowd to their feet.

“Telford are a very good team and they put us under a lot of pressure at times,” added Zajac. “They started the game really quickly but we managed to weather the storm.

“I’ve always said we’ve got character in spades and we scored at key times – Bentham’s goal was huge for us, especially as it came right after they took the lead again.

“Then Lewis – ‘Mr Overtime’ – comes up with a big goal for us yet again. It was a great moment.”

Tickets are available for this weekend’s home games against Hull Pirates (Friday 7.30pm) and Milton Keynes Lightning (Sunday, 5.30pm) from the Chiefs website HERE

For a record of all the Chiefs 2019-20 NIHL National results so far and remaining fixtures, head HERE