In that sense it was mission accomplished, a pair of one-goal defeats to a wily and experienced Swindon Wildcats team – the other NIHL National organisation run by Knights’ owner Steve Nell – nothing to be sniffed at as Whistle’s players showed enough over the course of two evenings that they are of capable skating with the best the second tier is likely to offer during the forthcoming 2021-22 campaign.
“I think the first thing we learned is that Swindon are a very good team,” acknowledged Whistle, thrilled to be back behind a senior bench at the weekend for the first time since March 2014 when he was in charge of Cardiff Devils in the Elite League. “We want to be able to match them all year long and I think we can.
“They work together very well, they pass the puck very well, they play in their own zone very well and we want to match that intensity and I believe our players have it in them.
“In terms of seeing which lines and combinations work well, it’s going to be perfect having these four exhibition games to learn a little bit about the players.”
Understandably, given all the change that occurred over the summer with new ownership coming in the shape of Nell, a new name and a new head coach, the Knights are very much a work in progress.
But what the weekend showed is that they are a team rich with attacking talent, albeit one that will, given the overall youthful nature of its roster, rely heavily on the nous provided by Whistle, and the more seasoned squad members such as Sam Zajac and Matty Davies.
What the weekend also proved was that, with a first home gate of around 500, there is – much like the Leeds Chiefs two years ago – a solid fanbase on which to build and build, with Whistle in particular enjoying his first experience on home ice.
“It’s always a special moment,” added Whistle. “It doesn’t matter where you are, that first game at home anywhere new is always a special night.
“It’s too bad it was a loss but, at the same time, it was enjoyable, the crowd was loud - it echoes very loud in this rink - so if we can fill this place it will be a hard place to come in and play. I’m hoping we can keep growing the numbers and make it a really difficult place for teams to come to.”
In both games, the Knights held a 2-1 lead, only to succumb on both occasions.
In front of a decent crowd of around 500 at Elland Road, the hosts went in at the first break ahead after recovering from a seventh-minute opening strike from Reed Sayers with two goals in just over three minutes, the first coming from the stick of Lewis Houston at 13.51 before Matty Davies followed up with the go-ahead goal at 16.03.
Swindon rallied after the break, though, drawing level through Cain Russell at 33.53 before edging into the lead with Chris Jones’s strike with just 57 seconds left in the period.
The visitors doubled their advantage at 42.36 through player-coach Aaron Nell, but saw that lead halved within five minutes when Jordan Fisher broke free down the middle and showed neat hands to backhand the puck past Dean Skinns.
Despite some sustained pressure from Leeds – one passage of play brought three attempts on goal within the space of about five seconds – there was no further scoring, Sam Gospel being called on to produce a couple of stunning saves at the other end to keep the home side in the fight.
On Saturday, the Knights had their resolve tested even earlier when they fell behind to Edgar Bebris’s strike with just 57 seconds on the clock.
But they killed off a couple of penalties, rallied and soon settled into their game, gaining some powerplay time of their own towards the end of the first. This carried over into the second period in the form of 35 seconds of a 5-on-3 powerplay, something they capitalised on when crisp passing by Ben Solder, Kieran Brown and Matty Davies set up Baldwin to equalise at 20.26.
Leeds had other powerplay opportunities but couldn’t make them count, although they still went in ahead at the break after Adam Barnes capitalised on a sharp pass out by Baldwin before firing past Renny Marr at his near post.
Not surprisingly, Swindon came out with more purpose and physical intent, the result of which saw two separate fighting melees break out, in between which the hosts levelled through Nell at 45.32, their game-winner coming 10 minutes later when Sam Bullas broke free down the left and set up Jack Goodchild to fire past Gospel.