Leeds Knights: Coach Dave Whistle content to settle for three-point NIHL National weekend
HAVING seen his Leeds Knights team deservedly pull themselves level against Raiders IHC with just 22 seconds remaining on Saturday night, coach Dave Whistle was rightly confident that momentum was with his team as overtime kicked in a few minutes later.
But, just 13 seconds had elapsed when Lukas Sladkovsky struck the winner for the visitors, having weaved his way down the right wing before cutting inside, evading the challenges of Kieran Brown and Sam Zajac and lifting the puck over netminder Sam Gospel.
It meant Sean Easton’s team took the extra point back down the M1 with them, the second successive time they had been able to leave Elland Road Ice Arena with the two points on offer.
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But, when the point gained by Leeds was taken as part of the whole weekend, head coach Whistle admitted he was still satisfied, particularly with his players’ impressive, hard-fought 2-1 victory at the home of leaders Sheffield Steeldogs on Friday night.
Another pluis point for Whistle was the return to action of first-choice goalie Sam Gospel, as well as that of defenceman Jordan Griffin, both having been missing for several weeks through injury.
Others are still to return, with Whistle hopeful forward Cole Shudra and defenceman Ross Kennedy will be back in contention for next weekend, giving him some welcome reassurance heading towards the two-legged Autumn Cup final against Swindon Wildcats in the week running up to Christmas.
“Before the weekend, if you’d said we’d have got three points out of four, I’d have been happy,” said Whistle. “But I guess we didn’t really come out guns blazing against Raiders, although I don’t think we got any puck luck during the game. We did have some good scoring chances and we must have hit the crossbar something between five and 10 times throughout that game - so you’re left wishing one of them would just bounce down.
“But, to be fair to them, they fought back, played well, especially defensively, they didn’t give us any rebounds and their goalie played well - I thought he got lucky on a couple of plays - but you play well and you earn your luck, so he did a good job for them.”
Ethan James did indeed play well in the Raiders net, deservedly getting his team’s man of the match award. As did his opposite number Gospel, something Whistle felt he rightly deserved for the second night running, having also bagged the nomination at Ice Sheffield.
“Gossy did a really job for us, too. He played excellent in Sheffield and here and it’s just great to have him back,” added Whistle. “He’s our solid rock back there.
“He gives us our chance to win every single night. He basically got us that point tonight.”
After the always-lively Harry Gulliver had given the Knights the lead at 6.38 off a Matty Davies feed, the game settled into a relatively even affair, Brown rattling James’s crossbar in the 12th minute, something which proved a recurring theme for the home side throughout the evening.
A goalless second followed – this time Davies and Brandon Whistle seeing efforts ping back off James’s pipework – and there was always a feeling that the one goal lead would not be enough, at least not for a second night running.
And so it proved just 130 seconds into the third, the Raiders breaking down centre ice on a three-on-two, with Jake Pitchley feeding James Hounsome to fire past Gospel.
Just under three minutes a Raiders team rightly growing in confidence took the lead through Aaron Connolly, silencing the home fans who then began to fear the worst.
It looked like those fears were to be confirmed until, with Gospel pulled, James could only parry a fierce Brandon Whistle effort through traffic from the left circle, the puck falling to Archie Hazeldine who was stood in front of net and reacted quickest by showing quick hands to drag and then push the puck over the line.
The small but raucous contingent of away fans were themselves then silenced and the expectation was that the hosts would maintain the momentum gained and finish the job in overtime.
But after the Knights lost the face-off at the start of the extra five minutes of 3-on-3, Sladkovsky showed great poise and skill to evade his opponents to cap an impressive performance by the visitors.