The Nelson Leafs are ready for the regular season to be over. That would be a mercy at this point.
With just four games left the Leafs hardly looked prepared for the post-season Saturday during a 6-3 loss to arch-rival Castlegar. The team entered the game missing four players to injury, but it was his squad’s poor discipline and uninspired play that had Nelson head coach Mario DiBella livid after the loss.
“We show signs of how well we can play and then we climb into a shell and don’t respond to the challenge,” said DiBella.
Anyone watching would be hard pressed to disagree with him.
Nelson surrendered a soft goal in the first 35 seconds of the period and from then on an air of inevitability hung over the ice.
Eamonn Miller, one of the few Leafs who appeared to play with a pulse, offered a succinct wrap-up of the game: “We went down by two again, then by three, then we were just defeated.”
Tayden Woods scored twice for the Rebels (31-14-3), who beat Nelson for the second game in as many nights after winning 4-0 on Friday.
Logan Sawka stopped 31 shots while Chris Breese, Darren Medeiros, Ed Lindsay, Zach Smith also scored for Castlegar, which won four of its last five games against the Leafs.
Jordan Davie, Kolten Nelson and Andy Fitzpatrick replied for the Leafs (19-27-2). Patrick Ostermann made 16 saves in net before being replaced in the third period by Josh Williams, who made his debut after being acquired by Nelson at the trade deadline before knee surgery delayed his first appearance. He finished with three saves.
The Leafs entered the game with a lineup on life support. Defenceman Dash Thompson is out with a concussion sustained Friday. Defenceman Aigne McGeady-Bruce is gone with an illness that may end his season. Forward Matt Sokol has an upper-body injury and forward Blair Andrews is out with a concussion diagnosed just before regulation began.
But set aside those players and Saturday’s game was still an embarrassment for Nelson.
“We’ve got to try to win these games,” said Miller. “We don’t want to just lose and look forward to playoffs. We’ve got to battle and set a tone for playoffs.”
Two, and only two, positives stuck for the Leafs after the game.
The first was Kolten Nelson’s goal – more on that later. The second was the play of Brendan Makay.
The 16-year-old defenceman was called up from the major midget Kootenay Ice to play for Nelson on Friday night. Then Makay suited up for the Ice on Saturday morning, went home for lunch and a nap, and returned to play again for the Leafs against the Rebels.
The bar is low for the Leafs’ blue-line right now – Davie spent most of the game playing defence after Max Daerendinger took a shot to the knee – but Makay looked good on the ice when he should have been gassed.
“The guys are really helping me out with a lot of tips here and there,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s always nice to play in higher leagues and play against better, more talented guys.”
Breese took a soft shot from the point during the first minute of play that caught Ostermann off guard for the 1-0 lead. In contrast, Sawka made a terrific save less than a minute later to squash a Leafs’ 3-on-1.
Medeiros and Lindsay hooked up just under five minutes later to put Castlegar up by two. Lindsay put a smooth pass right on the tape of Medeiros’s stick, and from there it went through Ostermann’s five hole.
But moments later Davie potted his 20th of the season to get the crowd back into the game.
Eamonn Miller and Rayce Miller nearly teamed up to tie the game after Eamonn Miller undressed a Rebels defender with a deke that would make Gordon Bombay proud, but Rayce Miller was unable to convert the finishing pass.
The Leafs still got their highlight-reel goal in the period at 8:19. Kolten Nelson toe-dragged at the goal-line and somehow fired a sharp-angle shot past Sawka to tie the game at two and put a jolt into the crowd.
Still, the first-period barrage wasn’t over. Rayce Miller went to the penalty box after putting a Castlegar player in a headlock, and the Rebels made him pay. Nick Headrick circled behind Ostermann and fed the puck to a waiting Lindsay to restore Castlegar’s lead.
It was the kind of penalty, Kolten Nelson said, the coaching staff took the Leafs to task about after the game.
“Just saying if we need to take penalties, they need to be penalties for a good reason,” said Nelson. “They need to be part of plays, not over the glass, or stupid little mistakes. I think that’s a big focus we need to work on.”
The second period opened with the unfortunate loss of Sam Weber. The diminutive Leafs forward was a constant shot of electricity in the first, but he checked Vince Bitonti from behind and was promptly shown the door. Bitonti, meanwhile, flashed some anger as he left the ice.
Castlegar couldn’t capitalize on the ensuing power play, allowing Nelson to tie the game shortly after on a power play of its own. Fitzpatrick rifled a shot that beat Sawka glove side at 12:39.
Nelson made another poor decision moments later and this time the Rebels took advantage. The Leafs were given a bench minor and Woods fired a shot on the power play that beat Ostermann top shelf to give Castlegar a 4-3 lead.
The penalty came after the Leafs were yelling at the officiating crew about a missed off-side call.
“As the coach I’ve got to keep the bench calm and understand that we only control the things that are within our control and not look for others to be blamed for what’s taking place on the ice,” said DiBella.
The Rebels padded their lead with a minute and a half left in the second. Woods tapped his second goal past Ostermann with Leafs forward Cleary Ambrose in the box for a delay of game.
Castlegar took control of the game in the opening minutes of the third. Smith’s shot from the point appeared to deflect off a Leafs player and knuckled past Ostermann’s shoulder. That gave the game an air of finality despite plenty of time left to play.
Leaflets: Nelson hosts the Spokane Braves on Sunday afternoon. … Castlegar was missing F Luke Madge and F Garret Patterson.