Nelson and Beaver Valley set for battle
When the puck drops on the post season tonight in Fruitvale, the biggest question local hockey fans will be asking is: which Nelson Junior Leafs will show up?
The Leafs’ rollercoaster regular season ended last Saturday with a horrible 5-0 loss to the Castlegar Rebels. It was Nelson’s seventh in a row and a skid that saw their visions of a KIJHL regular season title explode right before their eyes.
“The regular season is behind us now,” Leafs captain Colton Schell told the Star on the eve of the playoff opener. “This is an entirely new opportunity for all of us.”
On paper the Leafs and their first round opponent, the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, couldn’t be closer.
Thanks to Nelson’s late-season collapse, the Nitehawks edged ahead of the Leafs on the last weekend of the season. Beaver Valley’s 33-15-3-1 record was good enough for second place in the Neil Murdoch Division, while Nelson’s 32-16-2-2 effort put them two points behind in third. Beaver Valley scored 21 more goals over the 52 games, but the Leafs allowed 10 less against.
The regular season series between the two teams finished with a saw-off at 4-4. Early in the season the teams exchanged blowouts with the Nitehawks beating Nelson 8-2 in the first meeting and the Leafs returning the favour with 10-3 and 12-0 thrashings a month later. The last four games are probably a better indication of the evenness of the longtime rivals: 7-6 Nelson, 7-5 Beaver Valley, 5-2 Beaver Valley, 5-3 Beaver Valley.
“I think the team is very excited and ready to go” said Schell, who finished the season with 25 goals and 42 assists to lead his team for the second season in a row. “This weekend is going to be a massive test for us because if we don’t come out with a win it could be a tough series.”
The first two games go Friday and Saturday night in Fruitvale before returning to Nelson on Monday and Tuesday.
“Friday will be the most important game of the series,” said Schell. “If it’s close then it will set the tone and it will be a long series. If it’s a blowout for either side then it could be something you can’t recover from.”
Schell admitted that the seven-game losing streak is not easily forgotten, but added that it’s not the focus anymore.
“I am not really sure there is explanation,” he said of the fateful slump in play. “Obviously once we started losing, it really got the team upset and it was hard to recover. There were too many guys trying to do things on their own and getting away from our systems. Hopefully we can turn it around for the playoffs.”
Schell is in his final season of junior hockey. He knows that the post season is a whole different game than the opening 52-game act.
“It’s a lot more intense and a lot more physical,” said the New Westminister native. “The games mean that much more so you have to be that much more ready. You can’t even make little mistakes because those can turn on you pretty quick. Every shift is huge. You just have to do that much more.”
Schell finished seventh in league scoring, trailing off from his league leading run when he was on a line with super-rookie Colton McCarthy who was with the team during the first half of the season.
The captain knows if the Leafs are going to be successful, they will have to shut down the Nitehawks’ high flying offensive machines: Dallas Calvin and Ryan Edwards. Calvin finished fifth in league scoring and after Edwards quit the Trail Smoke Eaters late in the season, he managed to rack up 37 points in just 17 games with BV.
“We have to watch Calvin and Edwards,” said Schell. “If we can shut them down, then we have a much better chance.”
As is always the case, the top three teams in the Neil Murdoch Division were once again the class of the league. Though something to take pride in, it makes the journey to a championship that much more difficult considering to even get out of the division the Leafs will have to beat two of the best in the league.
“We have the hardest division in the whole league by far,” said Schell. “But I think if we put our minds to it, we can come out of the division.”
The puck drops for Nelson’s home games on Monday and Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Nelson and District Community Complex.