Leeds Chiefs 1 Sheffield Steeldogs 4 - Losing start as Chiefs finally get up and running at Elland Road

THE RESULT may not have been what Leeds Chiefs wanted – or needed – but, regardless, a little bit of history was made on Elland Road on Friday night.

By Phil Harrison
Saturday, 1st February 2020, 1:00 am
Updated Saturday, 1st February 2020, 11:25 am

Okay, so the whole rink wasn’t open to the public – the 500 or so fans packed on to one side of the rink – and there is still a long way to go before the Chiefs can play to a full 2,000-plus capacity - but the occasion was still one to savour.

Call it the dawn of a new era, or whatever, the Chiefs can now begin to establish themselves a foothold in the city they have waited almost six months to come home to.

In the end, Sam Zajac’s team came up short against a clinical Sheffield Steeldogs side, who snapped a three-game losing streak with a 4-1 win.

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MAKING HISTORY: Leeds Chiefs' Patrik Valcak, right, faces off against Sheffield Steeldogs' Vladimir Luka for the first ever puck drop at Elland Road. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

The defeat was partly down to the Chiefs themselves, spurning several gilt-edged chances against the obstacle that was Steeldogs’ goaltender Dimitri Zimozdra. By contrast, the visitors took their chances at key moments throughout the game.

The Chiefs - who out-shot the Steeldogs 55-30 - now have just 16 games left in which to gatecrash the NIHL National playoffs but, the 10-point gap that still exists between them and Raiders IHC - the team on the eighth and final playoff spot - could increase further over the weekend.

As expected, given the night was all about them playing their first-ever game in a brand new rink, it was Leeds who fed off the largely partisan crowd and enjoyed the early momentum.

They made most of the early running, although several shots from the outside failed to trouble Zimozdra, who did have to be alert to smother the puck as Joe Coulter tried to force it home in the sixth minute in a goalmouth scramble.

Leeds Chiefs pile on the pressure as the Sheffield Steeldogs defence battles to keep the puck out. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Sam Gospel was forced into a couple of saves at the other end, but it was the Chiefs - their numbers boosted further by the addition of two-way forward Jordan Kelsall from Nottingham Panthers - who enjoyed the greater possession, GB Under-20 international Ethan Hehir twice being denied by point-blank saves.

New signing Caly Robertson also showed why player-coach Zajac was so keen to get him here before the trade deadline, showing neat skill and deft hands to weave through two Steeldogs players only to see Zimozdra stand tall once again.

Better chances for the home side came when they broke out quickly, Patrik Valcak denied on a 2-on-1 in the 17th minute before Zimozdra again prevented the Chiefs, first from Adam Barnes and then from Lewis Houston on the rebound, the latter even hitting the post shortly after.

It was always going to be an historic moment when the first goal came at the new rink, the problem for the Chiefs was it came at the other end early in the second when, on a 2-on-1 breakaway, Alex Graham’s initial shot was parried straight into the path of Jack Brammer who forced the puck home.

TOUGH START: Leeds Chiefs' new two-way signing, Jordan Kelsall, takes on Sheffield Steeldogs' Brady Doxey and Ben Morgan. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

The night took a further turn for the worse when, with Richard Bentham in the box on a roughing call, the Steeldogs made the advantage count, Ben Morgan feeding Nathan Salem whose shot from the point took a deflection past Gospel to make it 2-0 at 29.52.

The Chiefs spurned more 2-on-1 opportunities - Valcak opting to pass when the shot was the better option on one occasion - before Barnes came agonisingly close to halving the deficit in the 38th minute.

His fierce shot saw Zimozdra get just enough on the puck before watching it fall down behind him safely in front of the goal-line.

Given their advantage, the visitors were controlled throughout, while the Chiefs - became increasingly desperate to make an impact in front of their first home crowd in which they could boast the greater support.

Lewis Houston (No 18) celebrates wioth Adam Barnes after becoming the first player to score at Elland Road, but it couldn't prevent a 4-1 defeat to Sheffield Steeldogs. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

But it was that determination to get on the scoreboard that cost them when they fell further behind in the 45th minute through a classic sucker-punch.

The Chiefs failed to make 84 seconds of 5-on-3 count and after the 5-on-4 penalty was also killed by the visitors, Graham came out of the box to create a 2-on-1 which saw him squeez the puck past Gospel.

The moment the Chiefs fans were waiting for – a first ever goal at Elland Road – came in the 55th minute, when the industrious Houston fired home from the slot after being feed by Barnes from behind the net.

Further pressure followed but there was to be no further cause for celebration for the home team, the Steeldogs showing their clinical side once again to make sure of the points when player-coach Morgan fired home on another breakaway.