Leeds Chiefs 4 Milton Keynes Lightning 1 - Resolute Chiefs remain in playoff contention
OUTSHOT and outmanned they may have been once again, but Leeds Chiefs are refusing to give up on their NIHL National playoff dream.
In an entertaining encounter which served as their second-last home game on the road - this time returning to Coventry’s SkyDome Arena for a second visit of the season - the Chiefs showed for a second game running that they can run with the second-tier’s best.
Despite having come in on the back of a three-game losing streak, Milton Keynes remained one the league’s in-form team when you take the past couple of months, having won 12 of their previous 17 games to lift them into sixth place in the standings, virtually guaranteed a playoff spot.
But, try as they might and despite various attempts to mix it up physically - particularly in the third - the Lightning could not break Sam Zajac’s team who, despite some desperate defending at times, were deserving of both points, thanks in part to netminder Sam Gospel who stopped 39 of the 40 shots arrowed in on his goal.
With goaltending like that and the kind of clinical finishing at the other end as seen on Saturday, the Chiefs might just have enough to upset the odds and make the post-season.
The only downside to their evening was when news filtered through that Raiders IHC - the team currently sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot - had beaten Bracknell Bees 6-5 in regulation, maintaining the 11-point advantage they have on the Chiefs.
But, with 18 games to go and something almost resembling a full roster, there remains hope, with the Chiefs hoping to win three games on the bounce for the first time this season when they host second-placed Swindon Wildcats in Solihull on Sunday evening (5.30pm).
In a bustling first period, it was the Chiefs who got the all-important go-ahead goal in the 16th minute. Ethan Hehir finding space in the left-hand corner from where he found Luke Boothroyd stood on point on the opposite side. Boothroyd’s shot then seemed to take a deflection off Liam Charnock, the puck falling kindly for Joe Coulter to fire home from close range for his second goal in as many matches.
To say the Chiefs came out flying early in the second period would be putting it mildly, as they forged a 3-0 lead for themselves within 44 seconds of the restart.
The industrious Hehir got his rewards when following up a shot from Andres Kopstals to fire past Dean Skinns at 20.32. Then, just 12 seconds later, it was 3-0 when the equally lively Lewis Houston was in the right place at the right time.
For a short while, the Lightning were knocked out of their stride but they rallied and rallied hard, at times almost camped inside the Chiefs’ zone, with a combination of Gospel and bodies being put on the line making sure that none of the 17 shots on goal got through.
As if to add insult to injury, the Chiefs - buoyed throughout by impressive import forward Patrik Valcak - eventually created a rare break, Henderson finding Coulter who then produced a near-perfect feed for Charnock to finish from close in to make it 4-0 at 32.10.
The Lightning - who had lost key forward Robin Kovar to injury in the first period after he clattered into the boards in a tangle with Richard Bentham - got one back just under six minutes into the third through former GB international Russell Cowley.
Again, the visitors - for who it must have felt like a home game given the superior numbers and vocal backing they enjoyed in the crowd - dominated in terms of possession and chances but they could not find a way through.
Key to their frustration would have been the Chiefs’ ability to kill 98 seconds of 5-on-3 with Kopstals and player-coach Zajac penalised, the hosts also killing another penalty straight after when Bentham was sent to the box.
That, as much as anything, was a sign it was to be the Chiefs’ night, and so it proved.