When the Nelson Leafs needed answers, they turned to their bench and found one ready and waiting in Rhett Hamilton.
Hamilton had sat out Nelson’s Game 4 loss in Castlegar on Saturday due to what head coach Mario DiBella said were defensive mistakes.
But with several players suspended after that game, and the Leafs on the verge of elimination, Hamilton got the nod for Game 5 and delivered a star performance.
The Nelson native scored twice, including one highlight-reel goal, as the Leafs beat the Rebels at home 6-3 on Monday.
Hamilton said he took sitting out Game 4 as an opportunity to reassess.
“I know what I’ve got to do and hopefully it’ll keep working for me. Tonight was a good game.”
DiBella said Hamilton was a clear difference maker Monday night.
“He clearly understood what his role was out there and he moved his feet at 100 per cent going to the offensive zone and as well as back to the defensive zone, and he got rewarded.”
The win forces Game 6 in Castlegar on Tuesday. If the Leafs win again, they’ll play Game 7 back in Nelson on Wednesday.
Ryland Mennie, Lane Goodwin, Lane Goodwin and Ryan Quast also scored for the Leafs, while Tenzin Mint made 28 saves.
Mitch Daines scored twice and Justin Duguay had a single for the Rebels. Goaltender Ethan Lawczynski stopped 25 shots.
The Leafs entered Game 5 in an unexpected hole. They’d begun the post-season having handily won the Neil Murdoch Division and finished 29 points ahead of the Rebels in the standings, setting up what statistically should have been a breezy first round for the Leafs.
But playoffs are, as the cliche goes, a whole new season, and the Rebels have used strong defensive play as well as sterling goaltending from Lawczynski to move one win away from a major upset.
Hamilton said the Leafs tried a different tactic Monday to beat Lawczynski.
“We definitely have to get in this guy’s head to beat him. A lot of stuff going on, not behind the play but just to get in his head, get him off his game, really worked out well for us tonight.”
The game began with Castlegar nearly scoring on a breakaway just four minutes into regulation. Jacob Moldenhauer was sprung on a breakaway, but was denied by Mint’s pads.
Instead it was Nelson taking the lead on a nice play by Johnny Carmichael and Mennie. Carmichael hustled deep in the zone to beat out a defender for the puck, then slid a pass across Lawczynski’s doorstep to Mennie. He scored on a tight-angle shot that appeared to have been screened.
Castlegar took little time to reply. Daines managed to swipe a bouncing puck in the neutral zone and was a step ahead of a Leafs defenceman when he took a top-corner shot that Mint was slow to react to, tying the game at one.
Nelson retook the lead on the power play with only 4.2 seconds before the first intermission.
Hamilton dodged a Castlegar player who went into the boards, picked up the puck, stumbled at centre ice but held on, skated uncontested along the boards then cut into the slot before scoring on Lawczynski.
Hamilton said he didn’t think the Rebels expected him to skate into the middle of the ice at the last instant before shooting, much less carrying on with the play moments before intermission.
“I think I was pretty deceptive to keep on going wide, and once I cut into the middle I had tons of time and just ripped it.”
Hamilton’s next goal wasn’t as pretty but was no less crucial. The Leafs were on the power play when Hamilton tucked the puck past Lawczynski for the 3-1 lead seven minutes into the second period.
Nelson took a 4-1 lead a minute and a half later on a goal that bounced off the boards to Goodwin, who scored but appeared momentarily confused by whether or not the goal belonged to him or a teammate.
The Leafs gave the Rebels an opening to get one back as the period came to a close. A 5-on-3 Rebels advantage led to nothing, but Daines jumped on a rebound with seconds left in ensuing 5-on-4 to cut Nelson’s lead to 4-2.
Nelson again ended the period with a late goal. The Leafs were on a power play when Goodwin’s pinpoint pass found Noble, who was flying into the goal for a snappy score.
“I thought that we tracked pucks well, we were good on our stick and we just got pucks to the net and followed through for rebounds,” said DiBella. “Lawczynski is an outstanding goaltender and you’ve got to beat him with an honest effort, and we gave it an honest effort.”
The home team insisted on giving Castlegar opportunities to get back into the game. Another one came in the third with the Rebels’ second 5-on-3. But unlike the first time, the Leafs’ penalty killers clogged the passing lanes and kept the Rebels’ from ever setting up.
When the long power play was over, Nelson still had its three-goal lead.
Castlegar got one back with 6:42 left in the game when Duguay scored off a rebound, but only seven seconds later Quast swatted a rebound mid-air past Lawczynski for the 6-3 advantage.
Leaflets: Nelson played without three suspended players and one of its coaches after a slew of suspensions were announced following Saturday’s Game 4 in Castlegar. Assistant coach Brandon Costa was suspended 10 games for entering the stands at the end of the game. (Video replay showed Costa appearing to defend a scratched Leafs’ player from Castlegar fans.) F Bryden Pow was suspended six games for a gross misconduct and match penalty, D Bryce Sookro was suspended five games for high sticking, and F Simon Nemethy was suspended three games for butt ending. Castlegar was missing F Tyler Ralph, who was suspended three games for charging. … Game 5 was delayed in the third after Leafs fans dumped something from above the Rebels net onto Lawczynski.