Sean Dooley tried to keep it light.
As his players sat exhausted on the bench during a meaningless game, the Nelson Leafs assistant coach did his best to keep spirits up.
“I was joking with them on the bench, like, ‘You’re going to be in good shape come playoffs if you aren’t already,'” said Dooley.
Nelson needed all the encouragement it could get. The Leafs played with a hodge-podge lineup of just 12 skaters in a 2-1 loss to the Spokane Braves on Friday. Nelson is missing six players, and had just three regular defencemen for the game with forward Jordan Davie chipping in at the blue-line.
The lack of able bodies meant there was very little in the way of energy from Nelson’s side. Forward Levi Hulston likened the game to a marathon. “We tried to jump as much as we could but we didn’t have much jump,” he said.
The final regular season home game was more about survival for the Leafs than result, although the close loss wasn’t a bad one against the last-place Braves who are just killing time with the season a lost cause.
But it was still a gruelling 60 minutes of hockey for the Leafs.
“We don’t have much gas left in the tank,” said forward Sam Weber. “Once you start skating off the ice you look to the bench and feel like you’ve got to change already.”
Paxton Malone and Troy Pichette each scored and Blake Norman stopped 20 shots for the Braves (9-38-4), who snapped a three-game slide.
Kolton Nelson scored and Josh Williams made his second straight start in net for the Leafs (20-29-2), finishing with 36 saves.
The first period was not the finest 20 minutes of hockey played at the Nelson and District Community Complex. Both sides were on the ice and shots were indeed taken, but there was more excitement to be found in line for popcorn.
The second period was a lot more lively, albeit in Spokane’s favour.
The Braves broke the stalemate at 15:27. Williams beat the initial shot but Malone collected the rebound and went over the sprawling Leafs goaltender for the first goal of the game.
Spokane’s second goal came exactly two minutes later. Nelson pressed following Malone’s goal and forced Norman to make several quick saves. But the puck bounced into the neutral zone ahead of Nelson’s defence where Pichette collected and beat Williams on the breakaway.
The Leafs’ best chance was a 3-on-1 started by Weber with just over a minute left. But Nicholas Ketola opted to hold onto Weber’s feed rather than shoot and the puck was chipped away from him.
Spokane continued to control the game into the third. But the Leafs finally got on the scoreboard at 9:44 when Kolten Nelson exploded past the Braves’ defence and deked his way through Norman’s pads.
It was a fitting goal for the Leafs – most of their offensives chances throughout the game came on the counterattack. Hulston said he couldn’t believe his teammate had the energy left for the breakaway. “[Nelson] pulled that out deep down in his heart, that’s for sure,” said Hulston.
The upcoming schedule won’t be any more forgiving for the Leafs. They play their last regular season game Sunday at Grand Forks before taking one day off ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in Fruitvale.
The Nelson coaching staff is confident many of their injured players will be back and ready for the playoffs.
“These teams aren’t going to be showing up at the rink thinking this is going to be a cakewalk,” said Dooley. “They’re going to say, ‘Well, these guys have been playing shorthanded for the last two weeks and they’ve been getting their noses dirty and hanging every game.’
“We’re excited to get our guys back and we know what kind of team we have and I think we’re going to scare some teams in the playoffs.”
Leaflets: The injured Leafs include: 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, while F Riley Swiscoski and D Brendan Makay were travelling with their major midget team. Rayce Miller (lower body) suited up Friday but didn’t play.