Welcome back, Josh Williams.
The Leafs goalie was electric in the season opener with a 37-save shutout to lead Nelson past the defending KIJHL champion Beaver Valley Nitehawks 1-0 on Friday.
Williams last suited up with the team for just six games during the 2015-16 campaign, during which he was acquired mid-season and plagued with injuries.
Last season he played Junior A hockey in Alberta, and it showed in his return to Nelson with a sensational performance that often looked as though he were trying to one-up Nitehawks goalie Owen Sikkes to see who could make the best save.
“You try not to think about it too much, just focus on the next shot,” he said in an understated manner. “Doesn’t really matter what the other guy is doing. Just trying to focus on the next shot.”
David Sanchez scored the lone goal for Nelson (1-0-0) in his first career Junior B game, and that was all the Leafs needed to start the season with a W.
Sikkes finished with 25 saves for the Nitehawks (0-1-0), who weren’t at full strength with just 13 skaters and only one goalie dressed.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella kept that in mind after the game.
“We’re not ready to fire up the firetrucks just yet,” he said. “They had 13 skaters and I thought we could have been a lot better. We gave them a period when we let them do whatever they wanted in the first. I thought we responded well by how we played in the second and third periods.”
Williams had to be alert as Nelson’s offence looking sluggish to start the season. The Leafs’ best chance of the opening period was a short-handed 2-on-1, but newcomer Ryan Keitly skated in a little too slow for his shot to fool Sikkes.
That was just one of three Nelson shots during the first 20 minutes as the team went to the locker-room having been outshot 14-3. They might have been down 1-0, but quick reactions by Williams led to one shot batted out of the air and the ensuing rebound stopped by the flash of his glove.
Several times during the game the Leafs appeared to struggle clearing the puck. DiBella said defensive zone coverage is something they’ll need to return to in practice.
“Even though we’ve gone over it under friendly fire circumstances in practice, when you’re in a game and in the heat of the moment sometimes things break down.”
The Leafs shook their jitters after the intermission. New additions such as Ethan Land and Justin Podgorenko showed off some physicality, and it was on the Leafs’ goal that they flouted a bit of new speed.
Hunt found Sanchez on a breakaway and the rookie flew down the ice before putting a move on Sikkes to score Nelson’s first goal of the season seven minutes into the period.
“I got my boots moving, yelled at Sawyer Hunt, he made a good pass up to me and I didn’t stop,” said Sanchez.
The Leafs continued to assert themselves in the third period.
Dash Thompson, back with the team from a Junior A tryout, somehow managed to flip a sharp-angle shot that nearly beat a surprised Sikkes. Moments later forward Jackson Zimmerman had a look in the slot but was denied by Sikkes’ big toe.
Williams answered with his own big save when Nitehawks forward Damon Kramer wound up for a nasty slapshot that was denied by William’s speedy glove.
The goaltending duel continued. Nicholas Wihak was wide open for a shot in front of Sikkes and skated away with his head shaking after the Beaver Valley netminder dove across the crease mid-air to make the save.
But it was Williams who had the final say. In the dying minutes of regulation the Leafs’ goalie lost a shot in his pads only to bat the puck away just in time. Beaver Valley pulled Sikkes and pinned the Leafs in their own zone, yet Williams’ acrobatics in net preserved Nelson’s lead and victory.
“It was a really defensive game I think on both sides,” said Williams. “They were really shut down. So were we.”
Leaflets: Nelson was missing injured forward Logan Wullum and defenceman Michael Bladon. …Williams was wearing a fire hat afterward as the team’s chosen player of the game. The hat was a gift from Nelson Fire and Rescue. … The Leafs face the Kimberley Dynamiters at home on Saturday.