Leeds Chiefs suffer miserable night as Bracknell Bees and Raiders prosper
As if losing to one of their two playoff rivals 5-1 on home ice in the shape of Bracknell Bees wasn’t bad enough, the other contender to make the post-season - Raiders IHC - were busy extending their winning streak to three games with a 6-5 triumph at Hull Pirates.
Throw into the mix big concerns over the fitness of netminder Sam Gospel, who struggled throughout the game and is unlikely to be in the starting line-up to face Basingstoke Bison at Elland Road on Sunday (5.30pm), and it all added up to a miserable, frustrating night for the hosts.
It all means that Raiders - the team currently sat in the eighth and final playoff spot - now boast a 14-point lead on the Chiefs, with ninth-placed Bracknell have now increased their advantage over Zajac’s team to 12 points.
The Chiefs have two games in hand on both, but that is largely immaterial. With only 18 points left to play for, it is obviously still mathematically possible, but it will indeed require the kind of ‘miracle’ which Zajac spoke of in the wake of his team’s 31st defeat of the season.
“It’s a massive blow for our playoff chances,” said Zajac. “They were obviously our closest rival and I thought we started really well for the first 10-12 minutes, really took the game to them which was something that we were trying to do.
“Then we went 2-0 down and we didn’t react the right way and I thought we sleep-walked our way through the second and gave them too much of a lead and then in the third we just ran into penalty trouble.
“It is a tough result in terms of the playoff picture but, as I’ve said all along, we’re going to keep going until the end of the season no matter what happens.
"Obviously, the aim is still to try and make the playoffs but, to be frank, we need a miracle. So even when it isn’t mathematically possible, it’s still about us carrying some kind of momentum into next season and playing for pride."
Despite enjoying the greater possession and heavily out-shooting the Bees, the Chiefs actually went into the first break trailing to an 18th-minute strike from Roman Malinik.
The visitors’ doubled their lead early in the second through James Galazzi, but the killer period came in the last 10 minutes of the middle section, Doug Sheppard’s team racing into a 5-0 lead through further strikes from Joshua Ealey-Newman, Dominik Gabaj and William Stead.
Joey Coulter pulled one back for the shell-shocked hosts with a second remaining before the break - the Chiefs’ Andres Kopstals and Bees’ Joshua Martin both getting called for roughing as a scuffle broke out around netminder Sam Gospel - but it was going to need a Herculean effort in the third to salvage anything.
It didn’t come, the Chiefs task made even harder when they had to kill seven minutes of penalties once Patrik Valcak was ejected from the game after a set-to with Galzazzi which resulted in the Chiefs forward having to be pulled from his opponent after he continued punching while the Bracknell player was on the floor.
Admirably, the Chiefs kept out the visitors while down on numbers for such a long periid, almost nicking one sat the other end but a tough night was to end with another scuffle when Zajac took on Martin in centre ice.