Leeds Knights seeking early momentum to boost chances of repeating 2023 NIHL National double triumph

On the face of it, having already won the NIHL National league title for a second year, games across this forthcoming final weekend of the regular season against Solway Sharks and Hull Seahawks probably don’t matter too much for Leeds Knights.

Not so, says head coach Ryan Aldridge.

With the group play-off format set to launch the following weekend – with Leeds set to go back-to-back with Hull Seahawks first up on Friday, April 5 (home) and Sunday, April 7 (away) – Aldridge wants his players back up to speed and firing on all cylinders for what will be two hard-fought encounters.

That might not necessarily have been over the weekend just gone in back-to-back games against their other Yorkshire rivals, Sheffield Steeldogs, but the Knights still got the job done, following up Saturday’s 5-4 win in South Yorkshire with a slightly more comfortable 6-3 win at Elland Road 24 hours later.

UP FOR IT: Leeds Knights' head coach Ryan Aldridge wants his players primed for the first weekend of the play-offs when they take on Yorkshire rivals Hull Seahawks.UP FOR IT: Leeds Knights' head coach Ryan Aldridge wants his players primed for the first weekend of the play-offs when they take on Yorkshire rivals Hull Seahawks.
UP FOR IT: Leeds Knights' head coach Ryan Aldridge wants his players primed for the first weekend of the play-offs when they take on Yorkshire rivals Hull Seahawks.
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Solway Sharks - their failure to make the post-season confirmed at the weekend - will want to go out fighting when they visit Leeds on Friday, while Hull - hoping to be crowned NIHL National Cup champions tomorrow - will want to gain another psychological edge over the Knights ahead of their play-off meetings.

“Next weekend is massive for us,” said Aldridge. “Friday night at home to Solway will be a good game and Hull on Sunday is obviously a big game anyway and it is the last one before the play-offs.

“This weekend against Sheffield was about maintaining momentum and we got the four points which was great, but I don’t think we were good in certain areas.

“After celebrating last week, I think it is hard to get the boys up for games like that, so this week is all about trying to get momentum back now for the play-offs.”

ON FIRE: Jake Witkowski celebrates one of his two goals against Sheffield Steeldogs on Sunday night - he bagged four across the two-game weekend. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights Media.ON FIRE: Jake Witkowski celebrates one of his two goals against Sheffield Steeldogs on Sunday night - he bagged four across the two-game weekend. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights Media.
ON FIRE: Jake Witkowski celebrates one of his two goals against Sheffield Steeldogs on Sunday night - he bagged four across the two-game weekend. Picture: Jacob Lowe/Knights Media.
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In an almost carbon copy of the first period on the previous night at Ice Sheffield, the Knights raced into another 3-0 lead on home ice on Sunday, Mac Howlett’s sixth-minute opener being enhanced by strikes from Matt Haywood and Jake Witkisowki.

But, again like the previous night, the Steeldogs rallied after the first intermission, Lewis Bell, Lee Haywood and Vladislav Vulkanovs getting on the board with only Kieran Brown replying for the Knights on the power play in the 33rd minute.

But Haywood and Witkowski doubled their tallies for the evening in the third to secure a remarkable 45th win from 52 games for the hosts.

Aldridge said there were aspects of his team’s play in both games that he wasn’t happy with but, with little riding on either game, he refused to be too hard on his players.

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“I don’t think we were good in certain areas,” he added. “But, it was tough, tough for both teams as the games don’t mean anything really other than a bit of pride.

“They’ve got a very young team at the moment and a lot of their experienced players - basically, all their experience - is out of the line-up. But they came and worked hard on both nights.

“It’s easy to get down on players, but it’s also tough for them to get up for games that, in reality, don’t mean much.

“Last week, it was about getting the legs going and on Thursday night the boys were still struggling from the weekend if I’m being honest but, now, that league title is behind us and it’s about getting back into our routine and some kind of normality and that starts this weekend.”

Leeds Knights play-off dates - Fri, April 5: Hull (H); Sun, Apr 7: Hull (A); Sat, Apr 13: Peterborough/Telford (A), Sun, Apr 14: Peterboro/Telford (H); Sat, Apr 20: Bees (H), Sun, Apr 21: Bees (A).