Bennett Anklewich needed only one very timely goal to earn the new letter on his jersey.
The Nelson Leafs had just been handed a five-minute major, ensuring they would spend the final minutes of the third period playing shorthanded, when Anklewich gathered the puck in his own end and found speed.
As his teammate Owen McFarlane drew the attention of Princeton Posse goaltender Josh Hager, Anklewich cut into the slot and scored to earn the Leafs an unlikely 2-1 victory in their season opener at home Friday night.
Anklewich, who the day before the game was named the Leafs’ new captain, did a bit of everything when it counted.
Princeton, which scored on the first shot of the game, had decisively outplayed Nelson through the first two periods. But minutes into the third Anklewich assisted on Johnny Carmichael’s game-tying goal, and in the dying moments won a critical faceoff to help the Leafs complete the comeback.
“It was a pretty gritty win,” said Anklewich. “We were getting outplayed for the first two periods. I just kind of tried to settle down the room and we just did what we had to do to win that game and got the two points.”
New Leafs head coach Adam DiBella didn’t have to wait long to have his captaincy choice validated.
“Bennett was probably the best player on the ice in the last half of the game. There’s a reason that we named him captain. … Bennett in all three zones, on the PK and the PP, was just a special player tonight.”
New starting goaltender Jasper Tait had a star turn in his KIJHL debut, turning aside 35 shots for the Leafs (1-0-0) while making several key saves as his team struggled to stay out of the penalty box.
Sean Mitchell scored for the Posse (0-1-0), with Josh Hager stopping 23 shots.
Expectations are high for the Leafs after their best season in a decade. Nelson was three games away from winning a KIJHL title in March before losing to the Revelstoke Grizzlies.
But their campaign got off to a suspect start Friday.
A point shot by Princeton defenceman Curtis Gould, the first shot of the game, was tipped past Tait by Mitchell three minutes into regulation. The Posse went on to outshoot the Leafs 9-0 before the home side registered their first shot.
The Leafs struggled throughout the period to find their feet. A 3-on-1 rush for Nelson ended with a shot that missed the net, and a later power-play was ruined by a desperation trip to stop a short-handed shot.
DiBella chalked up the early poor performance to jitters, which is typical of a season opener at home.
“We have 14 first-year players on the team this year, so a lot of nerves for sure and give credit to Princeton. They were a really great team. I don’t think we were quite ready for the intensity of our league early but as the game progressed we got better and better every shift.”
Nelson looked better to start the second period and was beginning to string together some shots when two poor penalties undid their momentum.
First, Joe Davidson was sent to the penalty box on a double minor for kneeing. That appeared to be mitigated on a Posse penalty just 50 seconds later, but then Leafs rookie Tyler Seminoff laid out Princeton’s Andrew Karam.
Seminoff was tossed from the game for head contact, Karam had to be helped off the ice by two teammates, and a very long penalty kill was in the cards for Nelson. But Princeton took another penalty a short time later, ruining the visitor’s chance at a prolonged 5-on-3. That helped the Leafs survive all the penalties without a goal against.
One clear positive for the Leafs, maybe the only one of the period, was the stellar debut of Tait. The rookie goaltender was strong throughout the pre-season and kept Nelson in the game with several strong saves.
“He had a hell of a game,” said Anklewich. “We wouldn’t have won without him.”
Nelson needed two periods to score their first goal of the season, and on a young roster it was the captains who stepped up. The Leafs were on the power play when Anklewich’s cross-crease pass to Carmichael led to the tying goal nearly four minutes into the third.
Carmichael, one of the new assistant captains, said he’s hoping to lead by example this season.
“You’ve just got to show [the rookies] what winning is all about. Obviously we came close last year and we’re hoping to take it all this year. So we’ve just got to show the young guys what it’s all about and hopefully we can take them there.”
But the Leafs again put themselves in position to lose late in the third. Rookie Hunter Sperle was handed a checking from behind and game misconduct, leading to a five-minute major that ensured Nelson would finish regulation on the penalty kill.
Somehow though it didn’t matter. Anklewich’s late-game heroics gave Nelson its first lead of the game, and Princeton made a potential error by keeping Hager in net in the final minute when they could have used an extra skater.
But errors were a theme for both teams throughout the game, and they left the ice with plenty to work on.
Leaflets: Nelson opened the season with 11 veterans and 14 rookies. … In addition to Carmichael, the Leafs also named Joe Davidson and Reid Vulcano their assistant captains. … The Princeton Posse had a familiar face on the bench. Liam Noble, who last season scored the winning goal that sent the Leafs to the championship series, is now an assistant coach with the Posse. … Nelson’s next game is Saturday on the road against the Grand Forks Border Bruins.