Video - Coach Sam Zajac hails 'character win' for Leeds Chiefs over Sheffield Steeldogs

SAM ZAJAC hailed the battling qualities of his Leeds Chiefs team as they held off a relentless barrage from Sheffield Steeldogs to record their second NIHL National win.

By Phil Harrison
Saturday, 26th October 2019, 10:13 am
Updated Saturday, 26th October 2019, 11:14 am

The 3-2 victory at Ice Sheffield, which saw Sam Gospel produce a stunning performance in net as the visitors were outshot 56-22, saw Zajac's team draw level on points with second-bottom Milton Keynes Lightning ahead of Sunday's meeting between the two in Buckinghamshire.

Two goals from the in-form Adam Barnes - taking his tally for the season to seven and a game-winning strike from Leeds-born defenceman Bobby Streetly were enough to edge out Ben Morgan's team, for who Nathan Salem hit two goals.

It may have been the performance of Gospel - on a two-way deal with Nottingham Panthers - which caught the eye, but player-coach Zajac was keen to emphasise the collective effort afterwards.

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Leeds Chiefs' goaltender and defenceman Luke Boothroyd clear their lines under pressure from Sheffield Steeldogs' Ashley Calvert. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

"That was a character win if you’ve ever seen one," said Zajac. "We’ve been saying for the last few weeks, that is the way that we need to play. Sam was amazing in net - that is why we were keen to get him in here.

"We’re not the kind of team and we haven’t got the kind of guys who are going to run a score up on teams. It might not be the prettiest at times but the guys put everything out there and put everything on the line and if we need to win ugly, that is how we’re going to win."

Zajac admitted his team got off to a slow start for the third game running, having fallen behind early in defeats last weekend to Swindon and Hull, and finding themselves very much second-best in the first 20 minutes on Friday night as the Steeldogs racked up 17 shots on Gospel's goal, compared to just two for the Chiefs on Dimitri Zimozdra's net.

"To be honest the last three games, we’ve not been great in the first period, we’ve probably been guilty of sluggish starts," added Zajac.

DELIGHT: Leeds Chiefs' player-coach, Sam Zajac.

"I don’t know how much of that is us training on a Wednesday and then not seeing the inside of an ice rink again until the Saturday, but it’s not ideal.

"But, on each occasion, we’ve responded well as soon as we’ve gone behind and got right back into the game.

"We’d love to start on the front foot and get a lead and play with a lead all game, but it is great to see that when we do fall behind we fight even harder to come back."

Having gone in ahead at the second break 2-1 ahead, Zajac admitted it was frustrating to let the Steeldogs draw level again through Salem's skilful second strike. But within 60 seconds, Streetly had regained the lead for the visitors.

Andres Kopstals, strong on the penalty kill for Leeds Chiefs and picked up an assist on Bobby Streetly's game-winner. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

"We'd spoken in the second break about how we couldn’t sit back and invite them on and wait and see what they came out with, that we needed to get out there first and get on the front foot," said Zajac.

"But they tied it up, so that was a bit frustrating and they had a lot of the puck. But we managed to produce another great response and we seem full of them right now because that was another great character performance. We kind of don’t know when we’re beat at times."

Another huge moment came in the final 10 minutes when the Chiefs spent four minutes on the penalty kill, a large chunk of it on a 5-on-3 with Lewis Baldwin, Steve Duncombe and Luke Boothroyd all spending time in the box.

But Zajac was confident his team had the tools to keep the Steeldogs out, with the PK being, he believes, one of the Chiefs' biggest strengths currently.

"I think our penalty kill is right up there among the best in the league, I’m not sure what the stats are but I know were right up there statistically," said Zajac.

"We’ve got some big players on the PK, who do big jobs and they’ve played that role for other teams. I’m not saying that’s why we have brought guys in but Joey Coulter, Liam Charnock and Andres Kopstals have all been huge parts of penalty kill units elsewhere and you know you can rely on guys like that.

"So even when there was a long 5-on-3 and they’ve got all of their big guns out there, there was no panic, we know how to kill it and, obviously, having Gossy back there as that last line of defence is a massive confidence boost too."