It was never going to be an easy game for Josh Williams.
The Nelson Leafs goaltender had to recover from knee surgery before making his first start in months Wednesday. Any thoughts of easing back into the game ended as soon as the puck dropped.
Williams stopped 23 shots as the Leafs fell 4-0 to the surging Creston Valley Thunder Cats who dominated possession for 60 minutes and looked like a team ready for a post-season run.
Williams, who was acquired by Nelson at the Jan. 10 trade deadline, said he felt rusty at the start of the game. Still he didn’t look like a goaltender coming off a knee surgery. He made several great saves and deserved credit from keeping the game from becoming a blowout considering the majority of play was spent in front of his net.
“First period I was almost jumpy, kinda not really myself,” said Williams. “By the third period I calmed down, got my footwork back, reading the play a little bit better, see through screens a little bit better.”
Brock Lefebvre made just 15 saves for the shutout as the Leafs struggled to move the puck across the neutral zone, much less put any sustained pressure on the Thunder Cats goalie.
Logan Styler, James Severs, Thomas Jankovic and Carson Cartwright each scored for Creston Valley (32-14-4), which won its seventh game in a row and looked like a complete package on the ice.
As for the Leafs (20-28-2), who will face the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in Fruitvale when the playoffs begin Tuesday, they’ll be happy to make it to Game 1 with a full roster intact.
Nelson played with five injured players off the roster. That number was essentially seven – Matt Sokol, who has an upper-body injury, suited up but spent the game watching from the bench. Zach Morey, meanwhile, took a hard shot off his left leg in the third period and needed to be helped off the ice.
That left the Leafs with just four defensemen on the ice for the final six minutes of the game.
“You just can’t compete in this league with a top team when you are down that many players,” said Nelson head coach Mario DiBella.
DiBella said he’s going to give Williams another start Friday for Nelson’s final regular season home game against the Spokane Braves. Regular starter Patrick Ostermann will likely get the nod for the season finale Sunday at Grand Forks.
“I thought Josh got off to a bit of a rocky start there in the first period. …,” said DiBella. “I thought that he was great the rest of the way. The second period [he] was real solid. He made some big saves. One save in particular in the second period he just robbed one of the Creston players.”
A questionable call led to Creston’s first goal. Max Daerendinger put a hard, but clean, hit on an opposing player but was called for interference. He was incensed with the ref and had to be held back by a linesman, which led to an unsportsmanlike conduct.
“His head was down, I saw my chance,” said Daerendinger. “He was carrying the puck so I beared down and gave him the hit. That ref did not like the fact that that was such a big hit so he gave me interference. I said a few words that shouldn’t have been said so he gave me two-minute for misconduct.
“So I regret saying those things but that should not have been a penalty.”
The Thunder Cats didn’t wait long to pounce. Only moments into the penalty Styler’s shot from the slot beat a screened Williams for the opening goal.
Daerendinger was made to regret his protest soon after. With the Leaf still in the box on the double minor, Severs banged in a close shot past Williams at a sharp angle for the 2-0 lead.
Nelson nearly got through the second unscathed despite plenty of Creston pressure until an odd bounce went against them with five minutes left in the period. Cankovic held the puck at the side of the net and took a soft shot. It bounced off Williams’ back and the netminder spun to make the save, to no avail.
The Thunder Cats continued to press. Alec Wilkinson fed Cartwright with less than a minute left in the period and the Creston forward ripped a one-timer over Williams’ left shoulder to move Nelson’s deficit to four goals heading into the second intermission.
Daerendinger said he felt the Leafs left Williams out to dry.
“Josh played huge. Especially since this is first game back. … He had a couple comments about his goals but I don’t think we can blame anything on him. We needed to be there to support him as much as we could and I don’t think we were.”
The third period was nearly uneventful, which would have suited the Leafs just fine, until Morey went to the ice. Play continued at the other end of the ice as Morey stayed down, and the whistle only came after the Leafs and the crowd began to howl at the officiating crew.
Leaflets: Nelson‘s injury ward is packed. D Dash Thompson (upper body), D Brendan Smith (upper body), F Eamonn Miller (upper body), F Blair Andrews (upper body) and D Aigne McGeady-Bruce (illness) were each out of the lineup Wednesday.