With five victories and one penalty shootout defeat from six playoff fixtures in Group A, the Leeds Knights have qualified for the Final Four weekend. In only their third season of existence, they have claimed back-to-back league titles, and are on their way to defending their playoff title too.

A new qualification system this year saw the Knights go head-to-head with the Peterborough Phantoms, Bees IHC and Yorkshire rivals Hull Seahawks, both home and away, in their quest to book a spot at Coventry. Ryan Aldridge’s side finished top of the group with 11 points, setting up a semi-final meeting with the Swindon Wildcats who placed second in Group B.

After being crowned league champions for a second successive season only a few weeks prior, the Knights welcomed Matty Davies’ Hull Seahawks to The Castle to begin their playoff campaign. Eight competitive meetings between the sides during the regular season produced four wins apiece with the Seahawks getting the better of the Knights in the final game of the season at the Hull Ice Arena.

Revenge was most definitely served when Leeds got playoffs underway with an 8-3 victory on home ice, despite going a goal down inside the opening two minutes. A brace from Elite League veteran Matt Haywood along with goals from Ethan Hehir, Innes Gallacher, Jordan Buesa, Kieran Brown, Matt Barron and Jake Witkowski set up an exciting reverse fixture: Hull’s fate wasn’t yet decided despite falling at the first hurdle with the new playoff format giving them five games to turn it around, but when the Knights prevailed again in the reverse fixture, it left little room for error for Davies’ side. The Knights achieved a 6-3 victory away from home in what was another incredibly dominant performance that saw them top the group on goal difference with the Phantoms in second place, level on points.

Next up was a double-header against the Peterborough Phantoms with both sides coming into the fixtures having had four-point weekends with back-to-back victories over the Hull Seahawks and Bees IHC respectively.

The Knights held a two-goal lead in Peterborough until the third period when the home side fought back and sent the game to overtime. Sam Gospel, in between the pipes for Leeds, and Jordan Marr, in net for Peterborough, were thoroughly tested but stood tall to deny the opposing team a winner, with the game sent to penalties. The Phantoms got the better of the league champions on penalties, but Leeds didn’t leave empty handed as they took a point back up north.

The following day, the Knights were on home ice against the Phantoms and bounced back from the penalty shootout defeat with a 4-2 win that retained their position at the top of Group A, heading into the third and final weekend of playoffs with seven points.

Matt Barron opened the scoring at The Castle in the first period with the visitors drawing level in the second, but it would be the third period that would decide who would take the points: Jordan Buesa scored 33 seconds in to give the Knights the lead before Noah McMullin was extending it almost ten-minutes in. The Phantoms clawed one back but an empty net goal from Mac Howlett with seconds of the game to play sealed the deal and gave the Knights another crucial two points.

Weekend three of playoff hockey began with Leeds playing their final game of the season at The Castle. A 7-3 win over the Bees and confirmation of their place in Coventry was the perfect way to end what has been another hugely successful season for the youngest team in the league.

Jake Witkowski proved once again that he is a player made for playoff hockey with a hat-trick just over 30-minutes in. Aldridge’s side booked their place in the Final Four weekend with further goals from Mac Howlett, Matt Barron, Matt Haywood and Kieran Brown; the captain scored the final goal of the season on home ice after another unbelievable year that saw him become the first player in the EPL/NIHL modern era to amass 100 point and 50-goal seasons in three successive years.

The sixth and final game of playoff fixtures was an away trip to Slough for the Knights, and it was another win recorded and another two points secured. With Harrison Walker in between the pipes and goals from Matt Barron, Mac Howlett, Jake Witkowski and a brace from the captain, the Morley Glass Leeds Knights finished at the top of Group A with the Peterborough Phantoms also qualifying in second place.

Semi-final action for the Knights will see them take on the Swindon Wildcats at 1:30pm at Planet Ice Coventry.

Words by Emily Laycock