KIJHL: Leafs ground Rockets
Sawyer Hunt dropped to the ice and gave an emphatic fist pump. Just like that, all the boiling frustrations of Hunt and his teammates disappeared.
The Leafs captain scored twice Friday and Logan Wullum scored 36 seconds into overtime as Nelson earned a 3-2 win against the Golden Rockets.
On Hunt's second goal, he picked up the puck on a busy play in front of Rockets goaltender Owen Sikkes and swept a shot into the net in the third period for a 2-1 lead. The goal finally put some life into both his team and the crowd during what had been a sluggish game.
"I think the last couple games I've just been getting so many chances and my teammates have been getting me the puck. I just couldn't buy one there for a while," said Hunt.
"In a game like this when you get that first one then you just get another one like that to lead the game, it's nice. You get excited and you just get a lot of momentum after that."
Devin Allen meanwhile made just 18 saves as the Leafs (16-16-3) ended a three-game slide.
Owen Lee and Kade Garritty replied for the Rockets (5-26-4), while Owen Sikkes matched Allen with 18 stops.
Last Saturday, the Leafs played their finest game of the season in a 2-1 overtime loss to Beaver Valley. That game was a classic as well as a statement that Nelson could hang with the KIJHL's best team.
Against the league's worst team, however, the Leafs had difficulty even getting shots on the net.
The first period was a slog as both teams had difficulty moving the puck out of the neutral zone. The Leafs struggled to finish passes, had trouble breaking through the Rockets defence and registered just four shots during the first 20 minutes.
As such, the period ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
"I think before the game, teams that are at the bottom of the league, we take them lightly," said Hunt. "We kind of play down to their level. I think once we get caught doing that we're not successful."
Nelson needed just two more shots to get on the board. Hunt was in front of Sikkes when he jumped on a rebound five minutes into the second period for the 1-0 lead.
But the arena went dead once more four minutes later on a surprise Rockets goal. Lee wrapped around Allen and tucked the puck in despite the goal appearing to be off its moorings at the time of the score.
The game went on, as even ugly games do. Nelson improved its puck possession but couldn't solve Sikkes, and the teams went to their locker-rooms still searching for a breakthrough.
That moment came for the Leafs at 15:30 of the third on Hunt's second goal. It also woke up the Leafs, who picked up the pace and started generating chances in the Rockets zone.
Leafs coach Mario DiBella said the Rockets played better than their poor record suggests, and that his side should have been better prepared for the game.
"I think that as young players they decide before the game starts who their opposition is and whether or not they're firing on all eight or 12 cylinders," he said.
Dale Howell nearly made it a two-goal lead with a slick deke ending in a toe drag that very nearly beat Sikkes.
But Nelson's momentum died with six minutes left. Leafs defenceman Brent Headon went to the penalty box for tripping and the Rockets took advantage. Garritty deflected a wobbly point shot by teammate Jake Gudjonson to beat Allen to tie the game at two.
Allen made sure the Leafs would get at least a point out of the game. He made a pair of vital saves in the final minute of regulation, including a pad save on a wired shot that sent a thud echoing through the arena.
Nelson can't afford to give up points to any team in a tight division race for playoff positioning. But the game often felt like a chore ahead of Saturday's bout against rival Creston Valley.
The Thunder Cats won the first meeting 7-1 on Oct. 29 in a game that ended with multiple suspensions and injuries. The rematch on Dec. 3, which ended 4-2 in favour of the Leafs, featured yet more hostilities and bad blood.
Both DiBella and Hunt said the Leafs may have been guilty of looking ahead to the Thunder Cats when they should have been focusing more on the Rockets.
"It is a huge game and we're certainly excited to come to play tomorrow," said DiBella. "Players don't need to worry whether or not they need to hold something back for the game tomorrow. They need to worry about the present and the next shift that they're on the ice.
"Certainly we as a coaching staff weren't happy with the overall tempo of that game, but let's take the positive out of it and believe they've left some in reserve for the big game tomorrow."
The Leafs are past the undercard. Now it's onto the main event.
Leaflets: Nelson defenceman Brennan Grocock is no longer with the team. He asked for his release so he could return home to Edmonton.