Leeds Knights hoping bodies can return in time for NIHL National play-off opener at Milton Keynes Lightning
IT WASN’T the way Leeds Knights would have wanted to sign off the regular season in front of their own fans - but now the fun can begin. Hopefully.
In order for the Knights to make the most of the play-offs, however, they need bodies back. And quickly.
A 2-0 defeat at Elland Road to Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs saw the Knights finish the regular season in NIHL National in fourth place - for the franchise’s first-ever season under owner Steve Nell, a very impressive return. Particularly when they signed off in front of a sellout crowd of 2,037. The future looks bright for ice hockey in Leeds.
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Now they can start preparing for the post-season, which sees them grouped with league champions Telford Tigers, Milton Keynes Lightning and Bees IHC, who only confirmed their place in the top eight on the final day of the campaign with an 8-2 thrashing of Basinsgtoke Bison.
In the end it was Raiders IHC who were the unfortunate team to miss out, in somewhat controversial circumstances given they were deducted points for failing to contest a fixture due to Covid issues earlier in the season.
With 10 teams now confirmed for 2022-23 - Bristol Pitbulls will fill the gap left by Hull Pirates - Sean Easton’s team will fight hard to ensure they don’t miss out on the post-season next time around.
In the meantime, Leeds begin their play-off campaign on the road this Friday in Milton Keynes, the start of a campaign which brings a total of six games, each team playing each other home and away. After facing off against a Lightning team who finished one place below and two points behind them in the table, the two go at it again at Elland Road 48 hours later.
Boasting just four first-choice forwards for last night’s derby, head coach Ryan Aldridge will desperately be hoping he gets some familiar faces back for this week’s trip to Buckinghamshire.
Matty Davies has been missing for three weekends with an upper-body injury, while forwards Ethan Hehir and Joe Coulter, along with defenceman Ross Kennedy, were ruled out this weekend with illness.
Young Archie Hazeldine - away with Great Britain Under-18s on international duty - won’t be back until the second weekend of the play-offs.
Secretly, Aldridge must be hoping that Manchester Storm fail to make the Elite League play-offs, a scenario which would potentially free up Harry Gulliver to return for Knights as part of the two-way deal which they have benefitted greatly from since early October.
Leeds were helped at the weekend by a string of 11th-hour replacements, with forwards Alex Kent, from Hull Jets and Damarni James, from Bradford Bulldogs, stepping up two levels to be welcomed onto the team coach for Saturday’s trip to Basingstoke.
Defenceman Jamie Smith, 16, joined them halfway down after making the step up from Swindon Wildcats 2.
Prior to that Aldridge had just six forwards and five D on his team sheet but, somehow, they came back with two points, coming from two goals behind to win in overtime.
Zack Milton and Alex Roberts gave the hosts a 2-0 lead, one that halved soon after the restart when Adam Barnes struck at 20.35.
That looked, despite matching the Bison blow for blow, as close as Leeds were going to get until Barnes doubled his tally at the perfect time with just 18 seconds left on the clock.
It was a goal worth waiting for, especially when Cole Shudra struck at 63.30 to earn a fully-deserved second point.
Back on home ice, the Steeldogs were the more dominant team, so much so the Knights only mustered three shots on goal in the second period.
It was the middle section where the damage was done, good work between Jonathan Kirk and Jack Brammer setting up Lee Bonner to fire low past Sam Gospel’s left pad to open the scoring at 25.04.
The lead was doubled just over six minutes later when Lee Haywood fired through traffic and although Kieran Brown, Barnes, Shudra and Sam Zajac had decent chances, they couldn’t find a way past Dmitri Zimozdra, the first time the Knights had been shutout all season.