Why home can be where the start is for Leeds Chiefs’ NIHL National playoff push

NOT surprisingly, it hasn’t taken too long for Leeds Chiefs to embrace their new surroundings.

Saturday, 8th February 2020, 6:55 am

Given that it took a little over five months longer than it should have done for them to skate out at the new Elland Road rink for the first time, it really should come as no surprise that absence made the heart grow fonder for that moment when it did finally come.

And while things may not have gone to plan when it came to opening night last Friday against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs – the Chiefs going down 4-1 – there is a determination within Sam Zajac’s group to swiftly make their new home a fearsome place for any future visitors.

It is hoped, both for sentimental reasons and for their overall playoff hopes, they can get up and running with a first true home win of the season tonight when NIHL National leaders Telford Tigers come calling.

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CONFIDENT: Leeds Chiefs player-coach, Sam Zajac is backing his team to derail Telford Tigers' NIHL National title bid. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

The record books will show that the Chiefs’ first home win came back on November 16 when an Adam Barnes goal secured a hard-fought 6-5 overtime win against Sheffield Steeldogs.

But that was in Blackburn and the story now is all about setting down firm roots in Leeds, the city they were always supposed to play in.

And, just a week after moving-in day came, player-coach Sam Zajac says he has already noticed a significant change.

“It is feeling like home already,” said Zajac. “The guys were excited to get in here on Wednesday – obviously we’re really thankful for Blackburn’s hospitality for training over there – but it does now feel like we are a Leeds ice hockey team, which is what we’re supposed to be.”

BENCHED: Leeds Chiefs' bench coach Glenn Baldwin watches on with his players during last week's opening night defeat to Sheffield steeldogs. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

One of the main advantages of Elland Road now being a functioning rink, is providing the team with a base, whether that be a drying room for their equipment, or just the extra ice time now scheduled for midweek training.

Rather than just the one practice session they were afforded across the Pennines in Blackburn, there will now be at least two evening sessions, with the possibility of a third on Friday mornings for those able to make it.

“From my side, the extra ice time is huge, it just gives us that extra time to work on things and fine tune things” added Zajac. “But for a lot of the guys, it is just about having that base and somewhere they can call home.

“Obviously, being able to play in front of our own fans and seeing so many people in here for that first game and having such a good time watching us, it gave everybody an extra boost.”

Despite the disparity in league position between tonight’s two teams – Telford are six points clear at the top, while the Chiefs are bottom, 11 points adrift of the playoff places – there is every reason to believe that the hosts can break their home ‘duck’ at just the second attempt.

All six previous encounters have seen the Chiefs match up well against a side many consider to be the best all-round unit in the league and they finally got their rewards when they won 3-2 after a shootout in Telford three weeks ago.

Telford have stuttered lately, losing four of their last six league games, but remain favourites to land the regular season crown, although Zajac is happy to make it harder for his former club by getting the better of them for a second time.

“We’ll go into this game confident, but then I go into every game confident with the roster we’ve got, especially with the changes we made through January,” said Zajac.

“Telford are a very good team and top of the table for a reason, but we’ve shown that we can match them and beat them.”