Video - Leeds Chiefs coach Sam Zajac stays positive despite opening night loss to Sheffield Steeldogs

SAM ZAJAC vowed to repay the faith of Leeds Chiefs fans in the coming weeks despite seeing his team lose out on their long-awaited home opening night at Elland Road on Friday.

By Phil Harrison
Saturday, 1st February 2020, 11:13 am
Updated Saturday, 1st February 2020, 11:25 am

The Chiefs went down 4-1 to Yorkshire rivals in the first-ever game of ice hockey in the city, with a crowd of around 600 watching on, the rink barely half-open due to continued delays to its completion.

It's hoped that 500 more seats will become available by the end of February as workmen race to get the other side of the rink's seating finished.

And given the speed with which tickets sold for Friday night's opener, it would be no surprise if Zajac's team could find themselves playing in front of 1,000-plus crowds before too long.

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Leeds Chiefs' new two-way signing, Jordan Kelsall, centre, from Nottingham Panthers, comes under pressure from Thomas Barry, left and Ben Morgan. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

To help that along, of course, positive results will also be required, something Zajac is keen to ensure now that his team have a place they can truly call home after spending the entire season prior to Friday night on the road.

The Chiefs remain rooted to the bottom of the NIHL National standings and face a massive task to try and gatecrash the playoffs, with Raiders IHC - the team currently sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot - 10 points ahead.

But, there are 16 games remaining for the Chiefs to overturn that deficit, 11 of those at home and Zajac is determined his team puts on a 'proper show' for them in the coming weeks.

"It’s frustrating that we couldn’t quite get the result that we wanted but it was great to see that one stand packed to the rafters and it looks like the interest for hockey is definitely here," said Zajac, whose team outshot the Steeldogs 55-30. "We need to make sure we put on a show for them in the games we’ve got left here.

Leeds Chiefs' Patrik Valcak, right, comes under pressure from Sheffield Steeldogs' Jan Danecek. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

"Unfortunately we didn’t get the fairytale opening night we wanted. At times we were good, in the first we kind of used the momentum that the crowd gave us beforehand and the excitement that everybody had coming into the game.

"But we just couldn’t find a way past their goalie Zimozdra, he had a great game. Also, at the end of the day, our powerplay wasn’t good enough, they took their chances we didn’t but, apart from that, I thought it was on a knife-edge for most of the game."

Zajac admitted the decisive moment came early in the third when, 2-0 down, his side struggled to create anything during 84 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play. Once that and the subsequent 5-on-4 had passed, Steeldogs' Alex Graham came straight out of the penalty box to score past Sam Gospel on an odd-man rush.

Lewis Houston made history by becoming the first Chiefs' player to score at Elland Road, but another breakaway goal, this time from Steeldogs' player-coach Ben Morgan, sealed the home side's fate.

Leeds Chiefs, right, and Sheffield Steeldogs line up for the national anthem before face-off at Elland Road.

"They scored at key times," said Zajac. "We had quite a few odd-man rushes that we fashioned quite early on and then the back half of the second period but we just couldn’t get it in the net.

"The Graham goal was probably where the game was gone. We kept going until the end but it was a bit of a sucker punch. You’ve got to be scoring on your 5-on-3s and we didn’t really test them enough, we were a little bit static and weren’t moving the puck as quick as we should be.

"Maybe it comes with guys not being on the same page, not getting enough reps in but we’ll make some tweaks to it as we’ve just got to make sure we’re scoring when we get opportunities like that."