Perfect finish required to help Leeds Chiefs realise debut season ambitions

LEEDS CHIEFS are being urged to produce ‘near-perfect’ hockey between now and the end of the season to give themselves a fighting chance of making the NIHL National playoffs.

By Phil Harrison
Saturday, 25th January 2020, 9:43 am
BELIEVE: Player-coach Sam Zajac
. Picture courtesy of Kevin Slyfield
BELIEVE: Player-coach Sam Zajac . Picture courtesy of Kevin Slyfield

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Sam Gospel and Leeds Chiefs intent on bridging NIHL National playoff gap

With just 19 regular season games remaining, time is running out for the UK game’s newest franchise to make the post-season in their debut campaign, Sam Zajac’s team sitting bottom of the standings and 11 points off the eighth and final playoff spot.

Player-coach Zajac acknowledges he and his team have left themselves a mountain to climb in order to extend their season beyond March 22.

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But a combination of last Sunday’s 3-2 win after a shootout at leaders Telford Tigers and a gradual and overdue return to something resembling a full-strength roster has galvanised the Chiefs squad, who are also buoyed by the prospect of finally getting into their new, Elland Road rink in just a few days’ time.

“We need to be pretty much perfect for the rest of the season to stand a chance of making the playoffs,” admitted Zajac.

“The guys are aware of that and we know how much of an uphill task we have left ourselves. But we’re going to fight to the very end here and we started with that mindset in Telford by showing how capable we are when everyone is on their game.

“We’re aware we need to be on our game every single night in order to stand any chance of clinching that final playoff place. We want to build on the momentum from last Sunday through this weekend and carry it into Friday’s first home game against Sheffield.”

Lewis Houston battles for possession during last week's win over Telford Tigers last week. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

This weekend brings, on paper at least, one of the toughest double-headers of the season, the Chiefs hosting Milton Keynes Lightning at Coventry tonight (7pm) before heading back to the West Midlands tomorrow to take over Planet Ice’s Solihull rink for a second and final time this season to welcome second-placed Swindon Wildcats.

After a similarly sluggish start to the campaign as the Chiefs, roster additions and changes have seen the Lightning’s campaign explode over the last two months, winning 12 of their last 17 games to catapult them into sixth spot to virtually guarantee a playoff spot.

Their last three games, however, have brought defeat, although only one in regulation which came last Sunday in a 6-4 loss at Raiders IHC.

Swindon remain the team most likely to deny Telford the regular season championship, although they too will require a near-perfect run-in to overhaul the six-point deficit between themselves and their Shropshire rivals.

In the head-to-head series with Lightning, Leeds trail 2-1 but will need to come out on top overall to enhance their playoff chances as they still have to face Lewis Clifford’s team four more times after today.

Against Swindon, two meetings have brought two defeats for Leeds, although they have pushed Aaron Nell’s team close each time, giving Zajac encouragement for his team’s chances over the course of the next 48 hours.

“We’re running out of games to stay in that playoff picture, we know that,” added Zajac. “To be honest, it doesn’t really matter who we play to be honest, we just need to take care of our own game and while this weekend does present two very tough games, we’ve shown in the past that we match up well against both of them.

“Where we’re at now, where we’ve got 5 D rolling and three good lines, we know we’re going to be competitive for the last 19 games.”