KIJHL: Ghostriders edge exhausted Leafs 3-2

The short-handed Leafs had two goals waved off during their fifth straight loss.

Leafs forward Ryan Piva carried the puck into enemy territory Saturday.

Jordan Unger is easy to spot on the Nelson Leafs’ roster. He’s the kid without a name.

Unger – or No. 8 on the ice while playing in a jersey without a name plate – has been a spark plug for the Leafs during a difficult stretch of games.

The Saskatoon native joined the Leafs just in time for the start of their current five-game losing streak. But with Nelson missing two full lines of players to either suspension or injury, Unger is already playing on the Leafs’ top line and being relied on heavy in faceoffs.

All the responsibility has gone a long way to making him at home in Nelson.

“It makes me feel more with the team, more welcomed,” said Unger. “I mean, a little nervous, but that’s hockey. Guys make me feel at home. Guys are good, coach is good, town’s good, and so’s the hockey so I’m happy.”

Unger scored his first KIJHL goal Saturday in a hard luck 3-2 loss to the Fernie Ghostriders. It should have been two goals for Unger, but he had a goal waved off in the first period.

The 18-year-old forward is the latest gem to be scouted by the team. He asked to be released by his Junior A team in Flin Flon, Man., because of a lack of ice-time, which he’s found plenty of in a Leafs jersey.

“He shoots rockets,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “He’s great on draws. He’s deceptively fast and he’s real strong defensively in his own zone.”

Unger’s play fit in well with another impressive performance by a thin team hungry for a win. Dale Howell also scored Saturday and goaltender Ben Kelsch stopped 23 shots for the Leafs (8-9-2), who played a complete game despite missing a third of their roster.

Leafs captain Sawyer Hunt said he thought his side should have beat Fernie.

“You can never make excuses, but if we had everybody back we would have been the better hockey team,” said Hunt. “Two games in two nights with almost two lines up front and four [defencemen], so it is tough and you do start to feel it at the end of the weekend. But I thought we sticked to the basics and we did a lot of things well. It’s just a little exhausting there at the end.”

Brandon Youngson made 32 saves for the Ghostriders (10-7-1), who had goals from Ty Abbott, Riley Siebel and Nolan Lagace en route to their second win in consecutive nights.

Fitzpatrick tested Youngson just three minutes in, but the Ghostriders netminder made the first of several great saves he’d have throughout the night.

Fernie’s first goal was an unfortunate one for Nelson. There was a crowd in front of Kelsch when Abbott circled the net and fired a shot that somehow made it through for a 1-0 lead.

But the Leafs replied just 12 seconds later. Howell found open ice in the slot and wired a slapshot glove-side past Youngson to give the crowd a jolt.

Nelson nearly had the lead after a series of passes left Charlie Wilkie alone on the side of the Fernie net. He fed Unger, who would have scored had the net not been knocked off its moorings.

The Ghostriders didn’t waste time taking the lead after the first intermission. Siebel’s snapshot surprised Kelsch only 21 seconds after the puck drop for a 2-1 lead.

A power play put the Leafs back even with Fernie. The puck was loose in front of Youngson and a scramble ensued. Unger was the lucky player to get a stick on the puck and batted it in to tie the game.

Yet another Leafs goal was waved off as the second period came to an end. Hunt streaked down the wing and ripped a shot off the Fernie post. The puck was swatted down and Howell collected for a shot that was immediately called for a glove pass.

The intermission benefited the Ghostriders yet again as the third period began. Lagace circled the net and slipped a shot past Kelsch’s pads to put Fernie ahead 3-2.

Hunt had a golden opportunity to tie the game about five minutes into the period. He was in front of the net for a feed from Colum McGauley, but Hunt was denied on a slick save by Youngson, who then slid well out of his net to collect the rebound.

The Leafs stayed in the game thanks to a pair of big saves by Kelsch, the second of which had the Nelson native diving across the net to block a shot with his chest.

The end result had DiBella frustrated for his players.

“I felt that we deserved a better fate in both games we played this weekend, particularly tonight,” said DiBella. “We’re a bit snake-bitten when it comes to scoring goals lately it seems. Goals that seem to go in quite easily seem to have a hard time finding the back of the net. We hit the goalie, we hit the crossbar, and we deserved a better result.

“I’m very proud of the players who played today. They’re dog tired. Eight forwards, no one gets a chance to rest, four deep. It was a battle.”

Nelson next embarks on a five-game road trip before finally returning home Nov. 26 against the Grand Forks Border Bruins. The good news is they’ll have at least three players back for those games.

“We’re all so tired,” said Unger. “We’re out of energy, we’re going to have a good nap here, good rest up tonight, and get back at it tomorrow and be ready for next Thursday in Castlegar.”

Leaflets: Nelson was still missing suspended players F Jack Karran, F Mason Mullaney and D Brent Headon. F Eamonn Miller (upper body), F Sam Weber (lower body) and D Brendan Makay (upper body) and F Kolten Nelson (upper body) were out injured. … Linesman Andrew Falcone took a hard hit into the boards during the second period. He had a bloodied lip but was no worse for wear.

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