It was never going to be pretty.
The Nelson Leafs were missing an astonishing eight players either to suspension or injury Friday night. On the other side of the puck, the surging Beaver Valley Nitehawks hadn’t lost a game since September.
So no, it wasn’t pretty. But even though the Leafs ended up losing 3-1, they put in a gutsy performance that suggested better days are ahead.
“I think we had a really good effort today,” said David Lenzin, who scored the Leafs only goal. “We battled pretty hard, but I think near the end we got a little tired and they started beating us in battles. I think that’s when momentum started to turn.”
Turn it did. Nelson hung with Beaver Valley until the third period when the Leafs gave up two goals and were outshot 20-6.
Aiden Browell had two goals in the third period while McKay Hauck also scored for the Nitehawks (12-3-2), who won their ninth straight game and are eight points clear of the Leafs atop the Neil Murdoch Division. Tallon Kramer, who was the KIJHL’s Kootenay Conference player of the month for October, finished with 23 saves.
Starting goalie Jason Sandhu returned from injury to stop 33 shots for the Leafs (8-8-2), who have lost four in a row.
Sandhu, the team’s No. 1 heading into the season, missed six weeks with a lower-body injury. Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said Sandhu looked shaky to start the game following the long layoff.
“He seemed to fight the puck a bit, there was a couple shots that he’d probably like to play a little bit differently,” said DiBella. “We had a chat after the first [period] and I thought he played with great confidence in the second and third, moved the puck real well, gave us an opportunity to win the game.”
Sandhu agreed with DiBella’s assessment. His relief at being back on the ice with a solid performance was tempered however by the result.
“It was a bit rough to start,” said Sandhu. “The puck was bouncing. It’s nice to be back but we’ve got to start winning here. It’s good being in the lineup, but we’ve got to get some results too.”
Compelling hockey was hard to come by in the first period. The short-handed Leafs, playing without eight players on their lineup, relied on their forecheck while Beaver Valley failed to find its own offensive rhythm.
Lenzin said the dump-and-chase strategy was effective against a stout Nitehawks blueline.
“Coach gave us a new system recently for the forecheck once we’re in the zone specifically to counter their attack and it seemed to be working pretty well,” said Lenzin.
“As for the zone entries, we were just told to keep it simple and get the pucks in deep. Especially because we only had four D-men today and they needed to get off the ice.”
The stalemate finally broke with just over a minute left in the period. Hauck fired a point shot on a Nitehawks power play that beat Sandhu and at the very least woke up the crowd.
It was more of the same after the intermission, but this time it was the Leafs who benefited from the lone goal of the period. Lenzin was well placed to fire a top shelf shot past Kramer to tie the game.
Sandhu’s stretch pass opened a Leafs’ 3-on-1 in the dying seconds of the period, but a pair of whiffed shots later and it was all for naught.
The third period opened with a terrific chance for the Leafs. Dale Howell’s howitzer shot was just tipped over the net on a desperation save by Kramer only a minute into play.
But moments later Leafs defenceman Aigne McGeady-Bruce was in the box for tripping and Beaver Valley went ahead on the ensuing power play. Browell was on the side of the net to score on Sandhu’s glove-side, putting the Nitehawks ahead 2-1.
A line change mix-up was in part to blame for Beaver Valley’s third goal.
Howell was coming off the ice and got tied up with defenceman Charlie Wilkie, allowing the Nitehawks to pounce on a 2-on-1. Sandhu made the initial save, but he gave up a big rebound that was there for Browell to score his second of the game on.
The Leafs pulled Sandhu and put terrific pressure on the Nitehawks in the final minute of regulation, but Kramer showed his pedigree with several saves just before the buzzer sounded.
It’s easy to wonder what the result might have been had Nelson iced its usual roster. DiBella said he hopes the players missing from action were watching Friday’s game closely.
“Players played with great heart and commitment today,” he said. “I think it’s a good example for players who aren’t in the lineup, certainly for those who are on the bubble as to whether or not they’re going to be in or out of the lineup once we have a full contingent of players. They have to be looking over their shoulders to say, ‘I have to do my job in order to stay in this lineup.'”
Leaflets: Last week’s brawl in Creston once again left the Leafs with a thin roster. F Jack Karran, F Mason Mullaney, D Jacob Karran, and D Brent Headon were each suspended for the game. The injury ward includes F Sam Weber (lower body), D Brendan Makay (upper body), F Kolten Nelson (upper body) and D Dash Thompson (upper body). … Nelson returns to home ice Saturday against the Fernie Ghostriders.