Time if not luck is still on ailing Leeds Chiefs side in bid for NIHL National playoffs

SAM ZAJAC heaped praise on his battling Leeds Chiefs team as injuries bit deep on a weekend which saw their losing streak stretch to five games.

Sunday, 1st December 2019, 11:48 pm
Updated Sunday, 1st December 2019, 11:54 pm
Leeds Chiefs' players can only look on as Telford Tigers take a 2-0 lead. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

Another weekend passed by without points for the struggling West Yorkshire club, whose run of bad luck showed few signs of slowing down in defeats to NIHL National leaders Telford Tigers and fellow strugglers Milton Keynes Lightning.

On both nights, however, a depleted Chiefs showed their battling qualities, drawing warm praise from a player-coach, who himself is not slow to show the leadership skills required when the chips are down.

“We don’t have a great deal of depth to start with, so it makes our job even tougher,” said Zajac. “Up until this point we have probably been quite lucky with injuries but they all seem to have come at once over the last few days.

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CLEAR YOUR LINES: Leeds Chiefs manage to clear their zone after another Telford attack. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

“The guys have dealt with it really well. Everyone just dug in and did what they had to. We ran two really good teams very, very close and we should be really proud of that.

“The character of this group is immense and, against Milton Keynes, we know we should probably have come away with something.

“But there are guys playing 35-40 minutes and it’s not sustainable over a full weekend.”

Already two men down ahead of their trip to Telford with defenceman Lewis Baldwin and leading scorer Adam Barnes out injured and ill respectively, they then lost import forward Andre Kopstals in the warm-up before defenceman Bobby Streetly went down on his first shift with what is feared to be a long-term, upper-body injury.

IN THE WAY: Leeds Chiefs' goaltender Sam Gospel saved 39 of 42 shots against Telford and then 45 of 48 against Milton Keynes on Sunday. Picture courtesy of Steve Brodie.

Telford ended the night as 3-0 winners but, as if that defeat was not frustrating enough, last night’s loss in Milton Keynes will have been even harder to take.

With Barnes and Baldwin back in the line-up - essentially filling the additional gap left by Streetly and Kopstals - the Chiefs stunned their opponents by establishing a 2-0 lead inside 12 minutes.

It was the returning duo who were the heroes, both on the power play with Baldwin scoring off a James Archer feed at 7.24 before Barnes combined with line-mates Radek Meidl and Archer to equally great effect just over four minutes later.

But, crucially, the Lightning got on the board before the first period was over, Cale Tanaka halving the deficit at 17.32.

As he had done the previous evening in Telford, netminder Sam Gospel again stood on his head, allowing only one shot past him from the 21 that came on his net in a desperately one-sided second period, the game-tying goal that had been long threatened eventually coming from the stick of freshly arrived import forward Robin Kovar at 35.59.

And although the Chiefs proved a more equal match in the third, though it was not surprising - given their lack of bodies over the course of the whole weekend - that tiredness crept in.

A hooking penalty was called and the game-winning goal came from the stick of Tanaka with just under five minutes remaining.

The obligatory empty-net insurance marker followed with Gospel taking a well-deserved breather as Liam Stewart rolled the puck home for a 4-2 victory.

It means the Chiefs are cast even further adrift at the bottom of the standings, five points behind second-bottom Lightning although, far more crucially, two further points worse off than Raiders IHC, who currently sit in that eighth and final playoff spot.

But, while luck is certainly not on the Chiefs’ side at the moment, time still is.