Buoyant Leeds Chiefs prepare for toughest test so far against Swindon Wildcats and Hull Pirates
UNDERSTANDABLY full of confidence they may be after their first win of the season, but Leeds Chiefs face probably the biggest test of their NIHL National credentials this weekend.
Sam Zajac’s team – who this week discovered they will have to wait at least another month before being able to compete at their new Elland Road rink – hit the road twice, with neither evening expected to provide a warm welcome.
Tomorrow brings a seven-hour round trip to Wiltshire to take on Swindon Wildcats – one of three teams at the top of the standings on 12 points – before a less arduous journey down the M62 beckons 24 hours later when they have their first meeting of the season with Yorkshire rivals Hull Pirates.
The Pirates, having swept all before them last season, are in the middle of an unwelcome and uncharacteristic four-game losing streak ahead of their Saturday night trip to Basingstoke, but player-coach Zajac is under no illusions as to how tough his players will find the going at Hull Ice Arena.
As for the Wildcats, Zajac believes they will be up against what is currently the best team in the league, boasting four strong lines and the league’s two top points scorers in the shape of Tomas Malasinski and player-coach Aaron Nell.
Having had three successful years at Telford Tigers, the demise of the English Premier League saw Zajac temporarily switch to Swindon for the start of the 2017-18 season before heading back to the north-east to rejoin hometown Whitley Warriors.
But that short stay in Wiltshire clearly left a big impression on the 30-year-old defenceman.
“Swindon on paper are probably the strongest team in the league, they’ve definitely got the most depth,” said Zajac. “They’ve got great goaltending and, probably, when you look all the way down their roster they are strong everywhere.
“It is a really well-run club too. I only spent a short time there, but it was a fantastic time and I’ve got a lot of respect for them both on and off the ice.
“There’s a lot of things that we in Leeds would like to emulate one day as we get a bit further down the road with our team.
“I know Nelly their coach quite well and they play a good brand of hockey. Offensively, they probably have the top line in the league, with Aaron, Max Birbraer and Tomas Malasinski.
“I think Malasinski and Nelly have probably scored 15 or so goals between them this season, so one thing we do know is that they are going to be very dangerous offensively.
“It is a tough place to play. When they sell that rink out, it can be quite intimidating.”
While he remains on the lookout for another defenceman, Zajac is planning no further additions to the roster for this weekend after bringing in forward Liam Charnock just before the 4-0 win at Raiders IHC last Sunday.
Defenceman Bobby Streetly, who picked up an injury in Essex, and forward Andrew Hirst, who missed that trip, remain doubtful with upper-body injuries, although Zajac is hopeful both will play a part this weekend.