The pain in Aigne McGeady-Bruce’s leg summed up a special night for the Leafs’ defence.
McGeady-Bruce had to leave the game briefly in the third period when dehydration led to a leg cramp. The minor injury wasn’t surprising considering all the effort McGeady-Bruce and other Nelson defenders made in holding the line during a 5-3 victory against a relentless Grand Forks Border Bruins offence.
The game was intense from the opening whistle, and as penalties piled up against Nelson in the third period the penalty-kill unit shined.
“It’s tough, but when the game’s moving that fast I feel like everybody kind of raises to that next level just because they have to,” said McGeady-Bruce. “They’ve got that pressure, they feel guys on their back and they are just moving their feet that much faster. I really like playing in a high-tempo game like that.”
All that effort was rewarded in the end. Andy Fitzpatrick skated in on a quick play to beat Border Bruins goaltender Anthony Galliart, giving the Leafs the lead with only a minute left in regulation.
Sam Weber, a key player on several Leafs’ penalty kills, found an extra drop of gas in his tank by speeding down the ice and scoring into an empty net to secure the win. Weber said the team did well working together in their own end of the ice.
“I think everyone’s position playing really well, communicating out there, getting in the lanes, sacrificing their bodies, doing what we had to do,” he said.
Colum McGauley, David Lenzin, and Brendan Makay also scored for the Leafs (6-4-1), while Josh Bolding stopped 30 shots.
Chad Grambo, Trey Mason, Dylan Haney replied for Grand Forks (5-3-3), with Galliart making 21 saves.
The game began without a whistle for the first eight minutes until McGauley put the Leafs ahead. The Nelson native buried a one-timer past Galliart on an assist from Lenzin.
But the Border Bruins replied less than a minute later. Bolding made the initial save but Grambo tapped in the rebound to tie the game at one. It was an unlucky goal for Bolding, who kept the Leafs alive as they were outshot 12-6 in the first period.
The Leafs’ offence found its stride after the intermission, but it was the Border Bruins who went ahead. Mason beat Bolding on a cross-ice feed at 14:36 that had the Nelson goalie doing the splits to no avail.
Mason, a physical presence on the ice, has been an offensive force for Grand Forks this season. He entered the game fourth in KIJHL scoring with nine goals and nine assists.
There was a long stall later in the period after a pair of penalties to both teams resulted in confusion and a delay of game by Grand Forks. When the mess was finally sorted, Lenzin crashed the net and smashed a shot past Galliart to tie the game.
Several fights kicked off in front of the Leafs net as tensions escalated after play re-started, prompting yet another lengthy delay.
Nelson went ahead on a short-handed goal that put a shock in the opposition. Makay, usually a stay-at-home defenceman, skated uncontested in front of Galliart, took a pass and went top corner for the 3-2 lead and his first goal in a Leafs jersey.
After the game head coach Mario DiBella pointed out it was Makay’s strong outlet pass that led to his own goal. Makay, who played briefly for Nelson last season and earned a permanent spot out of training camp this year, was grinning ear-to-ear after the game.
“It’s definitely a good time,” he said. “I hadn’t scored yet, I hadn’t gotten a point to that point in the season. It’s nice to get one finally.”
Makay is one of several young Leafs’ players, including 16-year-olds McGauley and Ryan Piva, making big contributions this season.
“They’re awesome,” said Weber. “They’re doing really well. We all get along really well, I think everyone’s starting to gel. They work hard, they do everything that we ask.”
Bolding had a big save to preserve the lead nine minutes into the third. He was again forced to slide across his net to stop a 3-on-1 by Grand Forks. Bolding got his pad out just in time to shut the door.
Too many men on the ice and a holding penalty to Dash Thompson gave Grand Forks a 5-on-3 advantage. One Leaf came out of the box and another went in on a tripping call by McGeady-Bruce, which extended the two-man advantage.
The Border Bruins finally tied it with just over six minutes left in the game. Haney put a slick wrist shot past Bolding’s pad to finally break what had been a very effective Leafs’ penalty kill.
“I thought that the officiating took us out of the game in the third period, but the boys were resilient,” said DiBella. “They bounced back and for the most part killed the penalties. They got a little bit tired and [Grand Forks] did manage get one power-play goal there, but overall our PK played very well.”
Bolding owed his post a drink in the dying minutes of regulation. Border Bruins forward Silas Johnson skated in and whipped a shot that eluded Bolding but bounced off the far post to maintain the tie before Fitzpatrick’s last-minute heroics.
Leaflets: Nelson is back on home ice Saturday against the Spokane Braves. … F Eamonn Miller and D Thompson returned from injury, while D Zach Morey, D Jacob Karran, and G Jason Sandhu were out for the Leafs. … F Kolten Nelson served a one-game suspension for checking from behind in his last appearance. … F Aiden Jenner and F Mason Mullaney made their Leafs debut.