Leeds Chiefs draw blank as playoff dream is thwarted

EVEN before the weekend, Leeds Chiefs’ hopes of making the NIHL National playoffs were already a tall order.

By Phil Harrison
Sunday, 1st March 2020, 11:36 pm
Updated Sunday, 1st March 2020, 11:47 pm

What the last 48 hours proved was just how tall.

The dream scenario was to take four points from a home double-header that brought playoff rivals Bracknell Bees and in-form Basingstoke Bison to the Chiefs’ Elland Road rink, while Raiders IHC - the Romford-based team lying in the eighth and final playoff spot ahead of the weekend - took nothing from their two games against Hull Pirates.

Unfortunately for player-coach Sam Zajac and his players, the points tally went the other way.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

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

The Chiefs - hampered by an untimely injury to first-choice netminder Sam Gospel - came out of the weekend empty-handed. Raiders, on the other hand, banked a maximum return, putting them 18 points clear of Leeds, who have just eight games remaining.

It will be a bitter pill to swallow by a Chiefs’ team who lost out 8-4 to Basingstoke just under 24 hours after going down 5-1 to Bracknell, who are now locked in a straight two-way tussle with Raiders for the last remaining playoff spot.

“The whole weekend was just frustrating,” said Zajac. “Last night, we couldn’t get our offence going and we gave up three goals in seven or eight minutes which effectively killed the game.

“Then tonight, we tried to be a bit more creative offensively and we did that to a degree and created some chances but we weren’t good enough at the other end and that is a recipe for disaster really.”

Leeds Chiefs' netminder Sam Gospel was hit by injury on a crucial weekend. Picture: Dean Woolley.

While Gospel bravely soldiered through Saturday night’s defeat, he was in no condition to repeat that effort against Basingstoke, meaning Zajac handed a Chiefs’ debut to 17-year-old netminder Harrison Walker.

As was to be expected, it was a baptism of fire for the youngster - a product of the Bradford Bulldogs’ junior system signed on a two-way deal from Blackburn Hawks last summer - who was playing his first game at this level.

“Fair dos to Harrison for stepping in,” added Gospel. “It was his first game at this level and we were a little bit loose at times in front of him. It’s a big ask to have him stepping in like that, it’s a step above what he has played before.

“He did well though and he made some great saves, but when you’re missing your most important player which Sam Gospel has been to us all season, it’s going to show.

Andres Kopstals scored in the 8-4 defeat to Basingstoke Bison on Sunday at Elland Road. Picture courtesy of Mark Ferriss.

“We were effectively missing our best player for two games - two really important games - so the timing is not great and you’re hoping for a response from the guys to get in the shooting lanes, tighten up and play a bit harder defensively.

“At times we did, at times we didn’t - we didn’t manage a full 60 either night.”

It didn’t take long for Bison to open their account, Sam Talbot firing past Walker with barely two minutes on the clock and although the Chiefs were quick to respond through Liam Charnock at 6.02, they were behind again within 29 seconds when Alex Sampford struck for the visitors.

Sampford made it 3-1 at 10.14 before Steven Moore made it a one-goal game again with a power play strike just over three minutes later.

FRUSTRATION: Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac. Picture: Dean Woolley.

The damage by Bison arrived in the second when they scored three unanswered goals in nine minutes, Ashley Tait making it 4-2 at 25.52 before Sean Norris and Adam Harding got in on the act.

Andres Kopstals gave the Chiefs a glimmer of hope at 44.05 but a Michel Klejna double gave the Bison an 8-3 lead with just inside 10 minutes remaining, Ethan Hehir pouncing with a fierce strike for a late consolation effort for the hosts.

Harrison Walker made his Leeds Chiefs' debut in the 8-4 defeat at home to Basingstoke Bison. Picture courtesy of Andy Bourke/Podium Prints.