Three’s a crowded weekend for Nelson Leafs
It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s a huge weekend for the Nelson Junior Leafs.
With the post season less than a month away and the three best teams in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League — Nelson, Castlegar and Beaver Valley — in a logjam atop the Neil Murdoch Division standings, there is no room to blink.
This weekend the Leafs will play three home games that could prove to be critical when the dust settles on February 17.
“There’s no additional pressure,” said Leafs head coach Frank Maida when asked about the necessity to win every game to hold onto the division lead. “The top three teams in our division are all within three points and it’s going to be a great finish. We are just playing one period at a time and not looking at anything else but our own game.”
The Leafs open the weekend tonight at the Nelson and District Community Complex with a match up against the feisty Spokane Braves. The Leafs have not lost against the division’s fourth place team with six wins and a tie. But none of the games have been easy and Spokane is always keen to be the spoiler.
On Saturday night it’s the Grand Forks Border Bruins who come to town. Though the Bruins are the league’s doormats, the team has gone on record saying they want to finish the season strong and be a factor in the final weeks. Earlier this week Castlegar barely escaped with a 2-1 win as the Rebels notched their seventh win a row.
On Sunday afternoon, the Revelstoke Grizzlies will draw the weekend to a close. The Grizzlies are third in the Doug Birks Division and with a 21-15-3-1 record, are statistically the best the team the Leafs will face on the weekend.
“You can’t underestimate any team,” Maida said of his team’s strategy heading into the weekend. “We are playing playoff hockey and will come out with that focus. We won’t be playing down to anybody’s level and will be taking it to them right from the start.
“Every game is a playoff game and every game is big from here on in.”
One of the players that will be key in the weekend and the remainder of the season is Linden Horswill. The Nelson Minor Hockey graduate has stepped up his play in the last few weeks and since super rookie Colton McCarthy departed for the Western Hockey League in early December has been an important part of the team’s offense.
“Linden is playing very well for us right now. He is playing in all three zones and is a big part of our team’s success,” said Maida.
In his rookie Junior B season last year, the speedy Horswill was relied upon for his penalty killing prowess and ability to silence the other team’s top guns. This season, the 18-year-old has shown his playmaking skills and accumulated 29 assists along with 11 goals. He is currently second in team scoring behind captain Colton Schell.
“A good defence is a great offense and Linden is being rewarded for his great defensive play,” said Maida. “He plays in key minutes in all situations. He is a leader out there and a great competitor on the ice.”
Another player who has stepped out of the shadows is James Sorrey. After a solid rookie season last year where he scored 14 goals and added 16 assists, the Surrey native was not a major factor in the early part of the season. But lately, the 18-year-old has come up big at key times.
“James has found his game,” said Maida. “He has been working hard for the entire year and now his hard work is paying off on the score sheet.”
With three tough games, the Leafs will need the entire crew firing. Three games in a row can be tough on the body and the mind.
“At this point in the season that is not an issue,” said Maida about the busy days ahead. “The boys want to play every day now, they can’t wait for that next game. You get focused and there is no time to not think about the task ahead.”
After the weekend is over the Leafs will have six games remaining in the regular season. Four of the games are against Beaver Valley and Castlegar (two each).
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Maida of the anticipated finish. “We’ve had a very good year and this is a very competitive division. The strength of this division attracts a lot of great players and that is what we are seeing right now. It’s going to be a great finish.”
The puck drops at the NDCC at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s start is 2:30 p.m.