Leeds Chiefs hit crunch time in make-or-break weekend
THE last time Leeds Chiefs headed to Basingstoke Bison, a week or so before Christmas, they were a team in some turmoil.
Leading scorers James Archer and Radek Meidl had just quit, partly frustrated at the extensive travelling involved for a team yet to get its own rink, while teenage forward Brodie Jesson had also exited unsure of where his playing future lay.
Throw into the mix the unavailability of injured veteran defenceman Steve Duncombe and there were understandably low expectations for Sam Zajac’s team when they walked into the Silverdome Arena.
With just 12 skaters on duty – one a rookie, 18-year-old defenceman, another a newly-arrived teenage forward from Dumfries – the prospects were not good, especially with the Chiefs being handed their heaviest defeat of the season the previous Sunday when hammered 9-2 at Peterborough Phantoms.
But, somehow, the Chiefs returned home from Hampshire celebrating a four-point weekend, battling to a 4-2 win on the Saturday before Lewis Houston – that ‘teenage forward from Dumfries’ – marked his arrival with an overtime winner the following night to seal a 3-2 win.
Unfortunately, the Chiefs couldn’t build on that euphoria, going on to lose nine of their next 10 games, a shortage of bodies a running theme through a period of the season which will come back to hurt them should they ultimately fail to make the NIHL National playoffs.
But Leeds are a different animal now. Yes, the odds remain long on them making the post-season, but buoyed by a handful of January signings, they are better-equipped than at any time previously in their debut campaign to put together the kind of sustained, winning run which has so far proved elusive.
Player-coach Zajac knows this weekend’s encounters against the Bison and the final regular season derby against Sheffield Steeldogs back on home ice tomorrow, represent a pivotal 48 hours for his team.
But he is confident if they can draw on the strength through adversity that pulled them through in Hampshire a little over two months ago, they can spring a late-season surprise.
“It’s crunch time – this weekend probably is make or break for our playoff hopes,” said Zajac. “The games are running out and, while we’ve got two very tough games ahead of us, they are also two very winnable games.
“Everybody really bought in on that weekend in Basingstoke in December – it was a real backs-to-the-wall job. To be honest, the season could really have gone either way at that point, so to come out with four points and two great performances gave everybody a huge lift.
“We went through some tough times after that weekend though and there were some performances – particularly against Bracknell and Sheffield – that we weren’t happy with at all. But I was proud of the way the guys stuck together, despite being low on numbers and morale.”
With the struggle for goals having been a constant theme all season for the Chiefs – they are by some distance the league’s lowest scorers – Zajac said he is happy to string together a run of ugly, narrow wins in order to keep those playoff hopes alive.
“The easiest thing to do when you’re struggling to score is make sure you shore up the other end, then you’ve always got a chance,” he added.
“We’ve got guys who we know if they get in the right positions are going to score, so if we work as a six to keep the puck out then we’ll be in with a chance every game.
“It might make for low-scoring games but at this time of the season it really is a case of points making prizes. If we need to win ugly by the odd goal all the way through to the end of the season, then that is what we’ll do.”
Tickets for all Chiefs home games at Elland Road can be purchased by heading to the club website HERE