Three more wins. That’s how tantalizingly close the Nelson Leafs were to a KIJHL title in March.
It had been 12 years since the Leafs last appeared in the Teck Cup finals, and 13 since they won. But patience paid off with a thrilling 2021-22 season.
One of the Leafs’ deepest rosters in years was highlighted by Nelson native Joe Davidson, along with Liam Noble, Simon Nemethy and Bennett Anklewich, as well as promising rookies such as Bryce Sookro and Johnny Carmichael.
The team cruised through a regular season that included a 12-game winning streak to finish atop the Neil Murdoch Division with a 16-point cushion.
Playoffs, however, are made for upsets, and the Leafs were nearly bounced in the first round by an upstart Castlegar Rebels squad. The Rebels stunned Nelson by going up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, but the Leafs rallied back with three straight wins to take the series.
Hockey became a little easier for Nelson in the second round. In Game 3 they hammered the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 8-1 in Fruitvale, then in Game 6 rallied from a 3-0 hole to win the series and head back to the Kootenay Conference series for the first time since 2018 when they fell to the Kimberley Dynamiters.
They faced Kimberley again this time around in the conference final, and both teams held home advantage through the first four games. But in Game 5, Leafs captain Tyler Pisiak exploded for a hat trick that included a short-handed goal and an overtime winner to break the Dynamiters on their own ice.
That set up a tense Game 6 in Nelson with the Leafs throwing everything they could at Kimberley goaltender Trystan Self. In the end, Noble scored what he called the biggest goal of his life in double overtime, sending Nelson to its first Teck Cup series in over a decade.
The finale against the Revelstoke Grizzlies was, by comparison, a letdown. Nelson couldn’t compare with the defending champions, who took a 2-0 series lead then won a critical Game 4 in Nelson that went to a third overtime.
The result led to a Game 5 back in Revelstoke, where Noble scored first and the Leafs led 4-3 heading into the third. But the Grizzlies replied with three unanswered goals to beat Nelson and win their second straight KIJHL title.
Nelson has made several roster and staff changes since the season ended, the biggest coming on the bench. Head coach Mario DiBella retired, making way for his son and assistant coach Adam DiBella to take over.
After coming oh-so close to that elusive title, we’ll have to wait until spring to see if they can win those last three games.