Sheffield Steeldogs v Leeds Knights: Impressive start now proving crucial for struggling Dogs, says Greg Wood

SLOWLY but surely, Sheffield Steeldogs’ coach Greg Wood can see light at the end of the tunnel.

WE MEET AGAIN: Although Matt Bissonnette, centre, will again be missing, out injured for Sheffield Steeldogs when they host Leeds Knights on new year's Eve at Ice Sheffield (2pm). Picture courtesy of Steeldogs Media.
WE MEET AGAIN: Although Matt Bissonnette, centre, will again be missing, out injured for Sheffield Steeldogs when they host Leeds Knights on new year's Eve at Ice Sheffield (2pm). Picture courtesy of Steeldogs Media.

But he remains under no illusions about the task in front of his team ahead of Friday’s Yorkshire derby showdown with Leeds Knights at Ice Sheffield (2pm).

He will still be without key individuals, most notably top line forwards Matt Bissonnette and James Spurr, who remain injured as a result of the injuries sustained at the hands of Milton Keynes Lightning’s Michael Powers in the Steeldogs’ 5-2 win on the road almost two weeks ago.

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Sheffield Steeldogs head coach, Greg Wood Picture via steeldogs Media

Justifiably, Powers has been banned for 11 games by the EIHA disciplinary panel and won’t be present when the Steeldogs return there on Sunday.

The loss of both players, coupled with the subsequent Covid issues that have further depleted Wood’s roster and which saw him ice just nine and 10 skaters respectively in road defeats at Telford and Leeds, has seen the Steeldogs’ lose a little ground on their NIHL National title rivals.

But while his team may have lost eight of the last 10 overall, they remain very much in the hunt. Leaders Swindon losing their last two games to Basingstoke Bison means only six points separate them from fourth-placed Steeldogs with over half the regular season schedule left.

WELCOME BACK: Lee Bonner is expected to be back in the Sheffield Steeldogs line-up to host Leeds Knights on New Year's Eve. Picture: Andy Bourke/Podium Prints

Free-scoring Jason Hewitt, along with Brady Doxey, were welcome returnees for the 5-1 home loss to Telford on Tuesday and Lee Bonner is expected to be back for Friday’s encounter.

“There’s about five of us now that are bunched up, chasing Swindon down, so there is still plenty to play for with more than half a season to go,” said Wood. “It’s a case of making sure we get everybody back healthy, so we can start competing again.

“We went 11 and 3 in our first 14 games, so it’s not like we’re a bad team and that good start has helped now.

“If we’d have had a rocky start and then also had to deal with this last month or so, we would have been right behind the eight ball.

BACK IN THE GAME: Jason Hewitt's return to the line-up for the 5-1 home defeat to Telford Tigers was a major plus for Sheffield Steeldogs. Picture courtesy of Peter Best/Steeldogs Media.

“But it’s a testament to our guys that the start we had has helped us still be in this chasing pack coming up to the new year.”

Wood classes Leeds – one place and three points behind them with a game in hand – as one of the five teams in with a shout for the regular season title.

But he is confident his team will prove to be more competitive than they were in the 7-4 Boxing Day defeat at Elland Road when Wood could barely patch together two full lines.

“We haven’t got a line that has played together before so it is still a bit mix and match,”he added.

“But we’ve got bodies, so hopefully we can compete a bit better.

“And if you’ve got numbers, the quality might be lacking a little in some areas, but they can all work, they can all skate and they can close things down and can make things tough. I expect us to be working hard and competing anyway, but I’m under no illusions, it is still going to be a tough game for us.”

Knights coach Dave Whistle is also expecting a closer encounter than on Boxing Day, but will again be without captain and veteran defenceman Sam Zajac.

Whistle will also have to wait until Friday morning to see whether he is able to call in either Harry Gulliver or Jacob Lutwyche as part of the two-way agreements in place with Elite League outfit Manchester Storm, although defenceman Ben Solder - also signed on a two-way with Storm - is expected to be in the line-up.