It’s a pressure situation typically reserved for the last line of defence during the playoffs, but for Nelson Junior Leafs back-up goaltender Patrick Defoe the weight arrived early. And after back-to-back wins, the young netminder may have secured a spot for the rest of the season.
With the acquisition of veteran Kootenay International Junior Hockey League goaltender Andrew Walton during the off-season, the Leafs have found themselves with arguably the best goaltender in the league. It’s the back-up position that was less clear heading into a three-game weekend.
On Saturday night in Spokane, Defoe turned away 32 shots in a 4-2 victory over the Braves. Getting the nod again Sunday afternoon, the Kelowna native stopped 35 in a 7-5 win.
“You never know, I’m not signed yet so they just wanted to see what I bring to the table,” Defoe said before hitting the showers after Sunday’s win. “I wasn’t expecting anything, but I’m always ready to go in.”
Walton started the Friday night game and despite a strong effort ended up on the losing side of a 4-3 double overtime contest against the Kelowna Chiefs. The veteran goalie tweaked his knee a little and needed an extra game rest Sunday. Defoe was more than willing to start his second straight and put together an outing that should make it easier for the Leafs to end their back-up search.
“The more shots you have the more opportunities you have to make that great save,” said Defoe. “I certainly didn’t mind all the shots, it gave them more of an opportunity to see what I can do.”
The Leafs opened the scoring Sunday afternoon at the Nelson and District Community Complex when Nik Newman scored on the powerplay seven minutes into the first period. Thirty seconds later Linden Horswill made the score 2-0 when he finished a play that included an all local flavour thanks to assists by Carson Willans and Dallon Stoddart.
With just over a minute left to play in the opening frame, Orri Haman got Spokane on the board when he beat Defoe. Twenty seconds later, Nelson’s Matti Jmaeff restored the two-goal cushion with his second goal of the season.
By the midway point of the second period the Leafs built a 5-1 lead on goals by Patrick Martens and Colton Schell. But just when it looked like a runaway, Spokane started coming on. By the end of the second period the Braves had cut the lead to 6-4.
Spokane controlled the play in the third, but couldn’t solve Defoe who stood tall in the Leafs net in the face of some great chances by the Braves. He was at his best late in the period when referee Jim Maniago called back-to-back questionable penalties. Defoe and the Leafs penalty killers were up to the task killing off four straight minutes in the latter stages of the game.
“It was a little scrambly,” said Leafs’ coach Frank Maida of the overall performance Sunday. “We were tired, we just got off the bus at three this morning [from Spokane]… it’s been a long weekend.”
Though not textbook wins, taking both games against a Neil Murdoch Division rival is always huge.
“Six out of six [points] would have been great, but I’m happy with five out of six this early in the season,” said Maida.
Though he didn’t expect to play him in two of the three games, Maida was pleased with Defoe’s effort.
“Both games he played very well for us,” said Maida. “Today the guys were a little tired and he had to stand in there and face a lot of shots in the third period.”
The coach was also upbeat about the work done by his penalty killers late in the game.
“Linden, Carson and Dallon did a lot of penalty killing in the last two games and they have done a great job,” said Maida. “Linden and Carson are really fitting into their role and understanding their role.”
A KIJHL rookie, the 17-year-old Horswill is happy to do what is asked for the team he grew up watching.
“I will take whatever ice he will give me and if that’s what I’m good at, then sure,” Horswill said of the penalty killing role. “It’s an important job and it’s fun, so I don’t mind the role.”
With an impressive 3-1-0-1 start the Leafs sit atop their division and Maida likes what he sees so far.
“The boys have really been working hard in the last two weeks,” Maida said. “It’s new, they are playing a new system and it takes some time to get used to it. But overall I’m pleased with the first two weekends.”
The Leafs next game is Friday night when they host the Grand Forks Border Bruins at the NDCC starting at 7 p.m.