Leeds Knights 3 Sheffield Steeldogs 2: Knights charge to historic first victory
ANOTHER little piece of ice hockey history was made in Leeds on Friday night.
As Leeds Knights progress through their inaugural campaign, there will be many such pivotal moments, lots of ‘firsts’.
Last weekend in Swindon, Lewis Baldwin became the first player to score in a Knights shirt. The following night, it was the turn of Lewis Houston to score the team’s opening goal at Elland Road.
And, on Friday, at the same venue, in front of a healthy 700-plus crowd, the Knights recorded their first-ever victory, a 3-2 win over Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs.
Yes, it was only a pre-season exhibition game ahead of the main event when the NIHL cup starts next weekend but, after a pair of one-goal losses to Swindon Wildcats last weekend, the result will have rightly pleased head coach Dave Whistle, whose players were given a stern examination by Greg Wood’s experienced, well-drilled team.
Goals from Ben Solder, Kieran Brown and Adam Barnes were enough for the win, the hosts having fallen behind early in the second period to a short-handed effort from Jason Hewitt, with Jonathan Kirk firing home a late consolation for the visitors with just seconds remaining.
It was the visitors who enjoyed the better of the early exchanges, forcing Sam Gospel into a smart reaction save and although the first derby meeting of the season was full of pace and energy, chances were few and far between.
The visitors were enjoying the greater zone time and it was Gospel who was certainly the busier of the two goalies, forced into a double-save in the seventh minute when he parried Hewitt’s close-range effort.
The first real shot on goal for Leeds didn’t arrive until the 10th minute when the industrious Ethan Hehir found space down the left and fed Brown to his right, his effort smothered by former Leeds Chiefs netminder Miles Finney, who could only watch when Brandon Whistle lifted his effort over the crossbar shortly after when clean through down the middle.
At the other end, Gospel had to be on his toes to deny Sam Towner on a one-on-one, while Barnes was next to test the impressive Finney, firing a snapshot from the left with the Steeldogs’ goalie quick to smother the rebound with Cole Shudra lurking in front of net.
Soon after the restart, Leeds found themselves on the penalty kill, although the only real serious effort came towards the end of the Steeldogs’ man advantage when Gospel had to be alert to smother Ben Morgan’s shot through traffic.
Leeds then enjoyed their own powerplay, but it proved to be anything but an advantage when play broke down in front of the Steeldogs’ net to present the visitors with a 2-on-0 breakaway.
Matt Bissonnette charged down the right with only Hewitt for company and, with Gospel fully exposed, presented his team-mate with the simplest of tap-ins at 25.31.
Thereafter the game became a bit scrappy at both ends, Whistle forcing Finney into a smart save from close range, while Gospel nearly got caught out when trying to play the puck out at the right-hand side of his net.
Finney denied Whistle once again from in front, as Leeds pushed for an equaliser. The goal duly came at 37.39.
After receiving pass from Ethan Hehir, defenceman Solder – playing third-line centre with Joe Coulter out injured – drove down the left before cutting inside from where his attempted pass to Jordan Fisher at the back post took a deflection past the unfortunate Finney.
It wasn’t long after the restart before Leedsfound themselves ahead, Brown firing home against his former club when left all alone in front of net with just 11 seconds gone.
Leeds went close to doubling their lead through Matty Davies and Shudra, while Brown almost nabbed his second when cutting in from the left, only to see his effort ping off the right-hand corner of Finney’s post.
Gospel still had to be alert at the other end, a save with his right pad seeing the puck fall kindly to Nathan Salem, only for the nimble Leeds goalie to somehow get across to deny him. It was to prove another stellar performance from the 27-year-old Nottingham-born stopper, turning away 48 of the 50 shots on his goal in order for him to boast a 96 per cent save percentage.
Leeds did double their advantage at 54.11, good link-up play between Shudra and Barnes down the ledt, seeing the latter beat Finney at his near post.
Kirk fired through traffic with nine reconds remaining, the Steeldogs out-shooting their rivals 49-45 on the night. But Leeds were already home and dry on another memorable night for all the right reasons.
For their first pre-season outing, the Steeldogs - boasting five former Hull Pirates players in the shape of Hewitt, Kirk, Bissonnette, Towner and Lee Bonner - proved a constant threat, out-shooting their hosts 50-45 and, on another night, with maybe a different goalie in between the Knights’ pipes, they would have won.
Next weekend sees them open their season prroper when they travel to Raiders in the NIHL Cup and Wood and his players will boost their preparations further for that when they host Telford Tigers tonight at Ice Sheffield (7.30pm).
The Knights take the day off on Saturday before heading down to Shropshire on Sunday for their final warm-up game against the 2019-20 NIHL National league and cup champions.