Leeds Knights boss hails 'unbelievable' opening weekend to NIHL National play-offs - but warns hard road still lies ahead

RYAN ALDRIDGE hailed an “unbelievable” opening weekend in the NIHL National play-offs for his Leeds Knights team – but said the biggest challenge was for his players to maintain the same momentum over the next two weekends.

An 8-3 win over Hull Seahawks at Elland Road on Friday night was followed by a 6-3 win in East Yorkshire on Sunday evening.

And even though the second encounter with their Yorkshire rivals was a more keenly-fought, competitive affair, the Knights were still deserved winners.

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Leeds can clinch their place at the Play-off Finals in Coventry on April 27-28 if they pick up another two wins against Peterborough Phantoms this weekend, Aldridge’s team playing host on Sunday night (face-off 5.15pm) after travelling to Cambridgeshire the previous night.

PLEASED: Leeds Knights head coach, Ryan Aldridge. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights MediaPLEASED: Leeds Knights head coach, Ryan Aldridge. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights Media
PLEASED: Leeds Knights head coach, Ryan Aldridge. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights Media

“I thought we were phenomenal on Friday, from start to finish,” said Knights’ head coach Aldridge after Sunday’s win in Hull. “I think the boys played proper play-off hockey - they all raised their game.

“Sunday was a bit different, I felt we were up and down most of the night but, on the whole, it has been an unbelievable weekend.”

The Seahawks found themselves chasing the game in front of their own fans after two first-period strikes from Matt Barron, a two-goal lead that was enhanced by Mac Howlett’s power play strike in the 22nd minute.

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Every time the Seahawks came up with a response, thereafter, the Knights had one of their own, none more so than just after the halfway point when Dec Balmer’s long-range strike gave the home team hopes of a comeback, only for it to be snuffed out when Jordan Buesa applied a back-hand finish into the roof of the net just 30 seconds later.

It was a similar story in the third period, Finlay Ulrick’s back-post strike just 52 seconds in being cancelled out by Kieran Brown’s exquisite finish on a breakaway five minutes later.

Owen Sobchak reduced the deficit to two again with a smart back-hand strike with just over six minutes remaining and the Knights needed netminder Sam Gospel to be at his best on at least three occasions in the moments that followed until Buesa’s empty-net marker sealed the deal with 46 seconds left.

This weekend’s double-header with the Phantoms will likely determine who finishes top of Group A, Slava Koulikov’s team also having posted the perfect start to their post-season with back-to-back wins over Bees IHC, who Leeds face in the final round of games.

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Despite having seen his own team get off to a winning start to the play-offs, Aldridge said there was still plenty of hard work required in order to get to Coventry and defend their play-off crown.

“We’ve obviously had a good start but now it’s about building on this and maintaining momentum,” added Aldridge.

“Every team is different when it gets to play-off hockey. Peterborough will be different and when we get down to Slough to face the Bees, they will be different, so it’s just about taking every game as it comes along.

“There are some tired boys after Sunday, so we just need to rest, recover and prepare properly for Peterborough on Saturday.”

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