Leeds Knights team ethic and hunger to improve fuels drive for NIHL National title, says Sam Zajac
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And although there are some notable differences between what was then the English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPL) and the current second-tier incarnation that is NIHL National, the 33-year-old sees enough similarities to give him an indication as to Leeds Knights’ chances of landing this year’s regular season crown.
The biggest difference between the two leagues was the number of imports. Back then, the EPL – by the time its demise came around at the end of the 2016-17 season – allowed teams five. NIHL National currently permits two.
Zajac was part of the Telford Tigers team that enjoyed great success in the EPL's final few years, lifting the regular season crown in 2015 and 2017.
Being part of two Championship-winning teams – the second time alongside current Knights first-choice goaltender Sam Gospel and former Knights’ centre Matty Davies – gives Zajac a unique insight into what is required to win at this level.
And as one of the ‘elder statesman’ in the Knights’ locker room, his experience and know-how will prove vital during the ongoing title run-in with rivals Milton Keynes Lightning and Peterborough Phantoms.
And that three-horse race - third-placed Peterborough have fell away slightly and are eight points adrift of current leaders Leeds - is another big difference between Zajac’s time with Telford, who positively cantered to their two titles by comparison, winning by 17 points in 2015 and 12 points two years later.
“I think both years in Telford, I remember having a similar feel to this year with us, where you knew pretty early on that you’ve possibly got something special and that you’ve got a chance of being in contention,” said Zajac.
“In any other year we’d probably be further ahead but this season you have to give credit to MK and Peterborough because they’ve been right on our heels all the time.
“We knew pretty early on here that we had a good chance when we went on that good run in September and October.
“We had a lot more margin for error back then at Telford, but this season is really exciting - it’s great to have something to play for this late in the season.”
Zajac sees similarities between the Telford teams and the current Knights’ roster, although age isn’t one of them, Leeds boasting the youngest line-up in NIHL National, whereas as Telford’s 2014-15 title-winning team was packed with experienced professionals such as Nathan Salem, Jason Silverthorn, Max Birbraer and Blahoslav Novak.
But the team spirit of the two Telford championship-winning teams is something Zajac believes the Knights do possess, an ingredient he considers just as important as any on-ice talent.
“The thing that sets you apart the most is not so much the on-ice talent, it’s more to do with that cohesiveness, that togetherness as a team,” added Zajac.
“We’ve got two or three guys here with a lot of experience who have been there and done it, but we’ve got a lot of young guys who turn up every day, hungry to get better and wanting to win.
“And it’s that ultra-competitive side that can be the thing that really pushes you over the edge and gives you that vital advantage.”
The advantage the Knights have on their nearest rivals MK is currently two points and a game in hand. The two meet in back-to-back games on the final weekend of the regular season on April 1-2.
“We can’t afford any slip-ups,” insisted Zajac. “We’ve had a couple of games this year that have maybe got away from us and we can’t afford to give any more away.
“It’s a bit of a cliche, but every game is like a cup final for us now. The good thing is, we’re all pulling in the same direction and that’s what everyone wants, from the fanbase right through to the owner Steve (Nell) and Ryan (Aldridge) as coach and us as players.”