Leeds Knights v Sheffield Steeldogs: Body count shows promising signs ahead of derby duel
THIS morning could go one of two ways for Dave Whistle in terms of which Leeds Knights players he will have at his disposal for tonight’s NIHL National clash at Sheffield Steeldogs.
Whether it is good news or – as has been the case more often lately – bad news, he knows his players possess the ability to adapt and thrive.
The last time the Knights went into Ice Sheffield was for the first leg of the Autumn Cup final on November 10.
Against the odds – long ones brought about by only having 12 skaters and the fact they were facing the regular season league leaders – they came away with a priceless 3-1 victory, one they backed up when winning a 6-5 thriller in the second leg at Elland Road two days later.
Those two performances are why the Knights will now be heading down to Wiltshire on Friday, December 17 to take on Swindon Wildcats in the first leg of the final.
That challenge is one to worry about down the line. For now, Whistle is hoping he can cross a couple of his players off the long-term injured list in time for tonight’s short trip down the M1 to South Yorkshire.
The signs for first-choice netminder Sam Gospel and defenceman Jordan Griffin have looked promising during the early part of this week, both stepping up their participation during Tuesday night’s practice session.
Cole Shudra was also hoping to be in with an outside chance of playing against his former club, but he has been ruled out for at least another week.
What will be key is how Gospel and Griffin feel this morning after last night’s training session and whether they are confident they are 100 per cent ready to return to the fray.
If there are doubts over either, another week away from the action is what will have to be. The last thing Whistle wants is to have a player return, only to suffer a relapse, get injured again and be out for even longer.
“Even if we get just one guy back this weekend, that would be massive for us,” said Whistle, who will have Manchester Storm forward Harry Gulliverback in his line-up tonight. “Especially given how long we’ve been playing short-benched.
“We’re looking forward eventually to getting two lines who can produce some scoring, or at least add enough bodies to avoid just relying on the one line like we have done for most of the past 5-6 weeks.
“Sam is a guy who will do everything he can in his power to get back as fast as he can and as healthy as he can – they all are. They all know that the team needs them and we know that we need them.
“Sam trained Tuesday and I spoke to him the following day and he said he felt okay, no pain, so that’s encouraging.
“But if he tells me he’s not 100 per cent sure after training on Thursday, then we’ll probably go on the side of caution. And that goes for all our guys. We need them all back, we want them all back but only if they are 100 per cent ready.”
Even if the worse case scenario transpires this morning and nobody comes off the injured list – defenceman Ross Kennedy and defenceman Joe Coulter are also sidelined indefinitely – Whistle remains confident of his team’s chances in what will be their fourth Yorkshire derby of the season.
Particularly given how they were able to play against type at Ice Sheffield when short-benched two weeks ago.
That night, Whistle asked his players to rein in their offensive instincts in favour of a more defence-orientated style against the Steeldogs and it paid off.
“We’ve proved we can go there and match them,” added Whistle. “We were really short that night and had to play differently – we played pretty passive and kind of shut down the neutral zone.
“But that isn’t really how our team plays. We want to be aggressive, we want to be a fore-checking team, get shots on the net, score lots of goals.
“But it was really good to see them buying in like they did that night. If we have to do that again Friday then we will do, but that’s not really the way either the players or I want to play.
“We want to get back to a full line-up, so we can get back to how we were playing at the start of the season.”