Swindon Wildcats 3 Leeds Knights 2 – Dawn of new era boasts plenty of promise
THE era of Leeds Knights may have got off to a losing start in Wiltshire last night but, on the whole, there was plenty for head coach Dave Whistle to be happy about at the end of his first 60 minutes in charge.
For large parts of their pre-season opening challenge game at Swindon Wildcats, the Knights were - probably to the surprise of some onlookers - the better side, particularly in a second period which they bossed, and not just because they outshot their hosts 16-6.
But a 3-2 defeat against a Swindon Wildcats team that always boasts plenty of quality - in a game which clearly meant plenty to both sets of players given the way the third period twice erupted into fighting melees - is certainly not to be sniffed at.
The good news is that the two will renew hostilities again on Sunday night when it is the turn of the Knights to play host at Elland Road, their first-ever home game.
Afterwards Whistle declared himself happy with his team’s first outing but, not surprisingly, had also seen areas for him to work on in the coming weeks.
“There was a lot going on there tonight, it was a good game, both teams were trying to score goals, there was some fiestiness, which is good to see early on, they haven’t played games for a while and I thought both teams played real well for their first game of the year,” said Whistle.
“I enjoyed it being back behind the bench again, I really, but I’m looking forward to the whole season. We need to be better when we don’t have the puck, we’re a pretty good team when wedo have the puck but we’re going to be working on stuff and some guys won’t be playing as much as they think.
“We had the majority of good scoring chances, Sammy saved every good scoring chance they had, except for a couple, he played great for us and gave us a chance to win the game.
“When we had the puck we were very exciting, when we don’t have the puck, we’re going to have to work on that side of the game for sure.”
Given the arduous four-and-a-half hour bus ride from West Yorkshire, it was perhaps not surprising that Leeds were slowest out of the blocks, going behind with just 57 seconds on the clock when Edgars Bebris fired past Sam Gospel, who had to be sharp to deny Wildcats’ player-coach Aaron Nell on a one-on-one a few minutes later.
The Knights began to settle particularly after killing off a slashing call on Sam Zajac and grew into the game, so much so that they forced their hosts into taking penaties towards the end of the period.
They got their just rewards for their growing confidence early in the second when they came out with 35 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play, Ben Solder, Kieran Brown and Matty Davies combining slick passing for the latter to set up Lewis Baldwin to fire home an equaliser at 20.26.
Thereafter it was one-way traffic for the next 10 minutes or so, Lewis Houston, Jordan Fisher, Brandon Whistle and Adam Barnes all forcing Renny Marr into smart saves as the hosts continued to take penalties.
But the Knights couldn’t make their regular numerical advantage count as Marr proved solid in the Wildcats net, only to be beaten towards the end of the period when the visitors finally went ahead.
Baldwin played a stretch pass out from the Knights’ blue line to Adam Barnes on the right-hand boards, from where he moved sharply to cut inside slightly and beat Marr on his near post.
Not surprisingly, a wounded Swindon came out with more purpose from the off in the third, to the point where Ross Kennedy and Swindon’s Oliver Endicott dropped the gloves in the 43rd minute, a situation which led to a flurry of players getting involved with each other in the corner and, ultimately, Neil Liddiard being thrown from the game for being third man in.
Just under three minutes later Swindon pulled level, their pressure seeing Gospel making a pad save through traffic only for the puck to fall kindly to an unmarked Nell, who tapped it home with the Knights’ netminder unable to make it back across.
Chances continued to come and go at both ends before another flashpoint in front of Gospel’s net erupted in the 53rd minute, one which resulted in the Knights’ Jordan Griffin receiving two separate slashing penalties and Tyler Plews given two for roughing before heated verbal exchanges between the two benches.
It was rousing stuff in a game which could easily have gone either way. Unfortunately, for the Knights, it didn’t go theirs, Sam Bullas getting the better of Bobby Streetly near the boards down the left to create a two-on-one with Jack Goodchild who fired past Gospel to restore the hosts’ lead at 55.18.
There was still time for Leeds to put the hosts under pressure - they outshot Swindon 43-29 on the night - but Marr was not for breaching again and the Wildcats held out to edge an entertaining way for both teams to launch their eagerly-awaited 2021-22 campaigns.