Why Leeds Knights and NIHL National rivals should be worried about Swindon Wildcats
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Throughout the 2022-23 campaign, the top three was - if memory serves correctly - forever populated by the same three teams.
Leeds Knights - the eventual regular season champions - led from the off and, ultimately, could not be caught.
But they were made to stay honest right until the last 2-3 weeks of the campaign due to being pursued by Milton Keynes Lightning and Peterborough Phantoms.
A quarter of the way through the current campaign, it is the same teams that occupy the top three spots, with the Lightning currently residing in first place.
But that ‘monopoly’ looks set to be challenged this time around, most likely by Hull Seahawks and possibly by 2019-20 and 2020-21 league champions Telford Tigers who, after a lean season last time out saw them finish seventh, seem rejuvenated.
But there is another team who, according to Knights’ head coach Ryan Aldridge, everybody needs to be wary of - his former club, Swindon Wildcats.
So far this season, the Wildcats have had the odds stacked against them, their campaign derailed before it had even started by not having a rink to either train or play in after their Link Centre home was flooded following torrential rains in mid-September.
As a result, there have only been sporadic training sessions for coaches and players with only three ‘home’ games possible - played in Cardiff, Bristol and Milton Keynes.
Not surprisingly, Aaron Nell’s team struggled in the early weeks, losing five of their opening seven games.
But, since a 7-3 ‘home’ win over Bristol Pitbulls on October 22, the Wildcats have picked up the pace, winning seven out of nine to leave them in sixth spot and with games in hand on all the teams above them.
They are scheduled to return home to play at the Link Centre for the first time this season on the weekend of December 16-17, when Sheffield Steeldogs and then Leeds provide the opposition.
As a result of Swindon’s travails, Aldridge believes the current NIHL National table has a misleading feel to it, one he expects to change once his old club return to a normal, more hospitable routine.
“Swindon are obviously in a tough place because of their rink,” said Aldridge, whose team shared the honours in last weekend’s double-header against the Lightning.
“When they get back into their rink, I think the whole league is going to have to watch out a bit.
“So because of that, I think the table is a bit misleading at the moment. They’ve got guys who are not training during the week at times and everyone is training in a different building, they train late at night.
“And so it’s tough on the body what they are going through right now but it’s only going to make them stronger as a group, I believe, because of what they’ve had to contend with.”
The Knights have only played the Wildcats once so far this season, losing out 4-2 on home ice in mid-October.
Because of the ownership situation - Wildcats’ managing director Steve Nell also owns Leeds - Aldridge believes games between the two sides are always among the most ferocious, given the natural rivalry at stake.
He expects it to be no different when they visit Wiltshire shortly before Christmas.
“Once they are back in their rink, training regularly and everything else, I think the whole league is going to have to watch out,” added Aldridge, who coached Swindon from 2008-2015. “We’re all going to have to be as far ahead of them as we can be before they get going back at their rink because I believe they will go on a roll once they get back in that building.”