For tonight’s home encounter with Telford Tigers, Leeds Knights could have the rare luxury of icing six defencemen and, just possibly, three full forward lines.
Despite the absence for the next couple of weeks of talismanic captain Sam Zajac, that loss will be offset by the return to the fray of fellow D-man Ross Kennedy, who is expected to ice for the first time since the 7-4 home loss against his former club Telford on November 6.
Throw into the mix the later-than-anticipated return of forward Cole Shudra – he was fit to go last week but was recalled by parent club Sheffield Steelers on Friday night – and it all makes for one happy head coach, with Whistle hoping his team have turned a corner in terms of their bad luck with injuries.
Centre Joe Coulter is also closing in on a return, but a decision on his fitness is likely to be a game-day one.
With the first leg of the Autumn Cup Final against Swindon Wildcats just six days away, it’s welcome news, but it means Whistle is keener than ever for his players to emerge from the next 48 hours unscathed.
“The final is obviously something we’re all looking forward to,” said the Knights’ head coach. “I know that during this weekend’s two games we won’t be thinking about the final but, at the same time, it is coming around soon.
“We’ve had more than our fair share of injuries already this season, so I’m just hoping that we don’t have another one all season now.”
Whistle will send out a team to face the defending NIHL National league and cup champions at Elland Road looking to further boost their confidence and building on two impressive performances while short-benched against Milton Keynes Lightning and Bees last weekend.
With just 11 skaters, the Knights were unlucky to come out on the wrong end of a 4-2 defeat in Buckinghamshire – the Lightning’s win given polish with a last-minute empty-net strike. But their efforts were rewarded the following night in Slough, when they deservedly got the better of Doug Sheppard’s team in a 5-3 win.
Similar performances against Telford tonight and at Raiders IHC tomorrow, will be ideal preparation to go into Friday’s first leg in Wiltshire against a Swindon team currently sitting top of the league standings after a run of just one defeat in seven.
“A good weekend will fill us full of confidence going down to Swindon,” added Whistle. “The players were great on the Saturday in Milton Keynes and I felt we deserved a point at least.
“Then on Sunday, we fought back after a slow start and going 2-0 down but then we really played exceptionally well in those two periods. We showed what we can do when we need to as a team and that alone is just going to be great for confidence.”
Having Shudra and, all being well, Kennedy back in the line-up, offers Whistle more flexibility in terms of his line combinations and defensive pairings.
If centreman Coulter is also given the green light to play, the Knights boss can return to something resembling the kind of potent line-up he hasn’t had at his disposal for a couple of months.
Whistle has also confirmed that defenceman Ben Solder is back with the Knights for the whole weekend, while two-way forward Harry Gulliver is available to face Telford.
“I’m pretty confident Ross will be good to go,” said Whistle.
“He did well in both practices, took part in all the drills and seemed fine afterewards.
“It’s been a while since he was last out there for us and he’s been a big miss.
“I liked what I saw from him prior to hom getting his injury. He has been a solid, two-way defenceman for us. He’s strong, he’s willing to hit, has strong skater and he has a good shot – a good two-way defenceman.
“And having Ross back helps nullify the loss of being without Sam Zajac for the next couple of weeks.
“It’s really good to have Cole back, too, it has been a long time coming, almost two months.
“He’s an important part of our offence, an important part of our defence, he’s a good, all-round player and having him back gives us two lines that can create and produce offence.
“It gives us flexibility in terms of our line combinations and takes pressure of some of our other players in terms of scoring.”
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