So much for an easy first round.
The Nelson Leafs were left to work out what happened in a quiet locker-room after a stunning Game 5 loss to the Grand Forks Border Bruins on Thursday.
Trey Mason scored in double overtime to give the Border Bruins a 4-3 win and cut into the Leafs’ 3-2 series lead.
Nelson could have blamed it all on a debatable late call by the refs that led to the tying goal, but Sawyer Hunt said after a lengthy players only meeting that the overall poor effort that included blowing an early two-goal lead was the real reason they lost.
“Not everyone showed up to play tonight,” said Hunt. “We had guys working hard but we had lots of guys who weren’t working hard. They weren’t buying into the systems and it just wasn’t a great team effort. It cost us.”
Mason’s goal just 17 seconds into the second OT came after he took a pass on a two-on-one from Nathan Cohen-Wallis and beat Nelson goaltender Caiden Kreitz with a wrist shot.
That forces Game 6 on Friday in Grand Forks. Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Saturday in Nelson.
Kreitz finished with 28 saves while Jaiden LaPorte, Jack Karran and Ryan Piva also scored for Nelson.
Hunter Harrison, Liam Stalwick, Riley Smoler had goals for Grand Forks, with Ross King stopping 27 shots.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella was less than impressed with his players after the loss.
“We didn’t lose that game. We gave it away,” said DiBella. “Honestly we didn’t deserve to win. The team that was facing elimination outplayed us and deserved a win and they got it.”
The Leafs didn’t waste time getting on the scoreboard. A Border Bruins pass in front of their net was picked off by LaPorte, who turned around and shot over King’s left shoulder and into the net as he was being checked to the ice just 1:33 after the puck drop.
Less than a minute later Kreitz put his early stamp on the game. Grand Forks forward Zane Avery got a step ahead of the Leafs’ defence and put a move on Kreitz, who stuck out his pad to keep the early lead intact.
Avery got yet another chance on a bad Nelson turnover. The Leafs were having trouble getting set up on a power play when Avery swiped the puck and took a one-on-one shot at Kreitz only to be denied yet again.
That mistake was quickly forgotten on the same power play. Michael LeNoury found Nicholas Wihak on a cross-ice pass in the Grand Forks’ zone. Wihak then zipped the puck back across the slot to a waiting Karran, who gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead.
The Border Bruins responded with a power-play goal of their own. Harrison skated over to the left faceoff circle and whipped a hard wrist shot that a partially screened Kreitz had no time to react to, which put a shot of life in the Grand Forks’ bench.
Nelson’s lead was wiped out three minutes before the first intermission. Right after another Leafs’ penalty ended, Harrison fired a point shot that was redirected by Stalwick past Kreitz to tie the game at two.
“It’s a common theme when we catch that early lead. …,” said DiBella. “We decide that, ‘oh this is going to be easy’ and somehow believe that we can just mail it in and go through the motions.”
A bland second period, which featured only 12 shots between both teams, was highlighted by a Leafs’ penalty shot.
Piva was hooked on a breakaway, but put away the ensuing penalty shot five minutes into the middle frame to restore Nelson’s lead.
With their season on the line, a penalty to LeNoury meant the visitors could finally get some possession. Within two minutes they forced Kreitz to make six saves, but couldn’t solve the Nelson netminder.
A collision between Hunt, LeNoury and Smoler left the Border Bruin on the ice. He skated back to the bench on his own power in what appeared to be incidental contact. The officials however disagreed, and after a long debate handed Hunt a two-minute interference penalty that drew boos from the crowd.
“Personally I think it was a horrible call,” said Hunt. “I think when the ref is right there and he sees the hit happen and they call the linesman over, and one of the linesmen makes a call like that with four minutes left. I think it’s a horrible call.”
Horrible call or not, it gave Grand Forks a crucial late power play. Just as it was expiring Smoler deflected the puck into the net to tie the game at three, force overtime and, for the time being, save the Border Bruins’ season.
Leaflets: Nelson was missing D Dash Thompson and D Zach Morey. Both players have yet to appear in the playoffs.