Leeds Chiefs 2 Telford Tigers 4 - Sam Zajac buoyed despite defeat to NIHL National leaders
THERE MAY well have been no points to show for their efforts, but coach Sam Zajac was happy with how well his Leeds Chiefs team matched leaders Telford Tigers.
Tom Watkins's side exited Blackburn Ice Arena with two points on the back of their 4-2 victory - their fourth win out of four against conference rivals Leeds this season - but they did so knowing they had been pushed all the way by the NIHL National league's bottom club.
As has happened all too rarely this season, Leeds actually out-shot their opponents (49-46) and, but for a 10-minute spell in the second period when they conceded three goals, were often the more threatening team.
Short-benched once again as they continue their efforts to bring in players to bolster the roster - a replacement import forward for Radek Meidl being the biggest priority - the Chiefs at least didn't see the gap between themselves and the eighth-placed team increase on Saturday night, even though a point gained in the 6-5 overtime loss at Basingstoke saw Raiders IHC leapfrog Bracknell Bees into the final playoff spot.
Regardless of who lies eighth, Leeds need two points from Sunday night's trip to Bracknell, who found themselves dropping a place in the overall standings because of their 4-1 defeat at second-placed Swindon Wildcats.
"I was really happy with the game we played - we kept it simple," said Zajac. "Again we were short on bodies and we were playing a team who are top of the league by some stretch, but we caused them lots of problems.
"I feel we play good hockey when we play a simple, structured game and we play better against teams that are structured, too, and perhaps struggle more against teams that are more individualistic and have that individual talent up front."
It was the Chiefs who actually started the brightest, Steven Moore was denied early on by Brad Day in the Telford goal, but the visitors began to enjoy more possession gradually and went ahead through Andrew McKinney when he followed up a rebound on Thomas McKinnon's initial shot to squeeze the puck home with 8.40 on the clock.
The Chiefs seemed happy to soak up the pressure from Telford, while pouncing on the break for their own chances, Adam Barnes denied twice by Day after working openings for himself.
The second period saw Leeds come out firing on all cylinders, earning more time in the Telford zone. They were rightly rewarded when Richard Bentham fired home from the point through a crowd past an unsighted Day following good work round the boards from Ethan Hehir after Andres Kopstals had won a face-off on the right side.
However, the Chiefs quickly found themselves behind again when, just 39 seconds later, Lewis Baldwin was edged out in a foot race for the puck by Corey Goodison, who fired home over Sam Gospel's left shoulder.
A one-goal deficit soon became two when James Smith poked the puck home at 24.56 and while Barnes continued to be the Chiefs' main threat working well alongside Moore and Lewis Houston at the other end, the period brought only more disappointment for the hosts.
Richard Plant was the quickest to react after Gospel's initial save from Jason Silverthorn's shot saw the puck drop down behind him in front of the goal-line to allow the simplest of tap-ins.
The third period proved one of frustration for the Chiefs, who dominated the play and had Telford under the cosh for large spells. Despite putting 17 shots on former Steelers' No 2 netminder Day's goal, he stood tall, with the hosts unable to capitalise on any rebounds.
One did eventually get through when Barnes tipped in a Zajac effort from the left to make it 4-2 at 56.23. It gave Leeds hope and, soon after, with two and a half minutes remaining, they pulled Gospel. Although Bentham came close to grabbing his second of the night when all alone at the back post, with over 60 seconds remaining, ultimately, there was to be no way back.
"I’m not one to blame things on luck or officiating, but maybe if a couple of calls or bounces had gone the other way, who knows what could have happened," added Zajac.
"Just the way everybody on the team is buying in at the moment makes my job easy. The guys are skating their legs off every night, they do the simple things right and listen and act on everything we try to do, so I’ve got no negatives from tonight apart from the scoreline.
"What really pleased me was how we responded really well to going behind. We put them under a lot of pressure, particularly in the third and really hemmed them in. We were making good pinches and cycles, we had some great chances but just weren’t as clinical as they were and that was the main difference."