Leeds Knights urged to get the balance right against Sheffield Steeldogs in Elland Road derby clash
DAVE WHISTLE is hoping to see his Leeds Knights players develop a more balanced approach over the course of their two final warm-up games this weekend.
The Knights are targetting their first-ever franchise win when they host Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Steeldogs at Elland Road tonight, before heading down to 2019-20 NIHL National champions Telford Tigers on Sunday evening.
Last weekend saw the Leeds players play the first-ever games under the Knights’ banner, losing back-to-back contests by the odd goal against Swindon Wildcats.
In both games, the Knights outshot their more established opponents, giving a small, early indication perhaps that Whistle’s team will be among the more offensively gifted in the second tier.
And while there was only a one-goal difference in both games, the head coach saw enough from the other end of the ice to show him that there was room for improvement.
That shouldn’t, however, be interpreted as a slight on his seven-strong defensive core, who spent the majority of the weekend chopping and changing partners as Whistle strives to find his best pairings.
But the 55-year-old Canadian, back behind a senior bench for the first time in seven years when his team skated out at Swindon last Saturday, is keen to ensure his entire roster contributes at both ends of the ice, his main concern from the double-header with their Wildcats ‘cousins’ being Leeds’ habit of giving up too many odd-man rushes.
Given it was his team’s first-ever taste of playing alongside each other, some slack has been understandably given by Whistle, but he saw enough for him to work on in practice ahead of tonight’s visit from Greg Wood’s team (face-off 7.30pm).
“Every single game you play at this time of year you get a little bit better - a little bit more used to the stick handling, a little better with the skating, a little better shape,” said Whistle.
“And, like we found against Swindon last week, it’s going to be another hard weekend against two very good teams in Sheffield and Telford - but that’s exactly what we need.
“We need to make sure we are better when we don’t have the puck if we can. When you lose the battle, you’ve got to fight back and win the next battle. You don’t just want to let their guy have a free lane to the net and I felt at times against Swindon we were outnumbered coming towards our own net too often and we want to make sure we minimise those (situations).
“They must have had half-a-dozen two-on-ones over the weekend, so they’d better score eight or nine goals if that is the way they are going to play - but I don’t want them to play that way.
“We have some real strong, offensive players and I know they want to be offensive players and they have all the skill level in the world.
“But if you don’t really want to work extra hard along the boards or come back or pick up the right player and you lose 4-3 it doesn’t equate to what we’re trying to achieve as a team.
“That’s the No 1 rule in my book: defence first - the offence will take care of itself because they already have that in them.
“We’ll just have to work on every single player to make sure they play the right side of the puck at both ends.”
The Steeldogs arrive in Leeds having had a busy summer of recruitment, one that saw them add three further former Hull Pirates players to the two they already had in place for last season’s behind-closed-doors Streaming Series and Spring Cup in the shape of Jason Hewitt and Jonathan Kirk.
Once it became clear Hull would not be part of the 2021-22 return to action this season, the obvious destination for their top-end players were their more local rivals.
With Matt Bissonnette, Lee Bonner and Sam Towner joining Kirk and Hewitt - who played under Whistle at Sheffield Steelers back in 2005-06 - the Steeldogs capitalised more, although the Knights’ boss is more than happy with both experienced centre Matty Davies and fellow forward Jordan Fisher, both scoring their first goals in Leeds colours last weekend, having made the decision to head west down the M62 to Elland Road.
The likes of Hewitt and Davies going toe-to-toe against each other instead of piling up the points alongside one another in Pirates’ colours as they did for three consecutive seasons, should make for an interesting sub-plot tonight.