Levi Hulston thought he was going to watch Friday’s game from the stands.
The Nelson forward was handed a five-game suspension after the Jan. 29 brawl against Castlegar that ended with six players ejected. His teammates, Rayce Miller and Matt Sokol, were also preparing to put on suits instead of uniforms as the Leafs and Rebels faced off in a rematch.
That changed just hours prior to the game when all three suspensions were overturned. Suddenly Hulston could play, and when the game began he came out firing.
Hulston scored less than two minutes into regulation as the Leafs beat the Rebels 5-3 to earn a measure of revenge after last week’s loss.
“I couldn’t have been more fired up for today and I think all the boys were ready to take it to those guys,” said Hulston. “We owed them one, for sure.”
Miller echoed Hulston in more than just attitude. He scored twice Friday, his first goal nearly identical to Hulston’s, and looked possessed on the ice.
“It didn’t help that we thought we were suspended all week,” said Miller. “Once we got the green light today it was like … we were definitely ready to come out in this game and win it.”
Brendan Smith and Blair Andrews also scored for the Leafs (18-24-2), who had previously lost four in a row and their last two straight to the Rebels. Patrick Ostermann, meanwhile, put it another tremendous performance with a 36-save night.
Ed Lindsay scored twice and Tayden Woods had one of his own for the Rebels (28-14-3), and netminder Paul Broadbent turned aside 28 shots.
There were no fireworks in the rematch. All the crowd of 560 at the Nelson and District Community Complex got to see was one of the Leafs’ best games of the season, an offensive effort that didn’t let up through all three periods.
Nelson has struggled to find their step in first periods throughout the season. To help, Leafs head coach Mario DiBella had a psychologist speak with the team during the week about being mentally prepared to play.
DiBella also appealed the suspensions during his team’s week off. He called the last-minute decision to overturn the suspensions by BC Hockey’s Referee in Chief Sean Raphael a relief.
“Full credit to the league for taking the appeal and reviewing it and seeing it the way it was rather than the way it was called,” said DiBella.
The Leafs showed off their offensive intent as the crowd were still settling into their seats. Hulston snapped a slick shot over Broadbent’s shoulder into the top corner on just the second shot of the game for a 1-0 lead.
Nelson’s momentum was temporarily stifled six minutes later. The Rebels had just went on the power play when Woods fired through the crowd on a point shot that Ostermann initially looked to have but squeaked through anyway.
But the Leafs answered soon after to retake the lead when Smith beat Broadbent on a sharp-angle shot that surprised both sides.
The Leafs appeared to find Broadbent’s weak point on their third goal of the period. Miller took the same route as Hulston and fired the same shots, although his went short side over the Rebels’ goalie’s shoulder.
The period very nearly ended 4-1 after Davie was sprung loose on a breakaway, but Broadbent made a great pad save to keep his side in the game.
Castlegar tried to reassert itself in the second. Lindsay scored on a big rebound four minutes into the period to cut Nelson’s lead to one and put some doubt in the home crowd.
That unease was short-lived. Less than two minutes later the Leafs got a fortunate rebound of their own as Miller tucked his second of the game past Broadbent.
“[Miller] was exemplary,” said DiBella. “I haven’t seen that from Rayce for a bit. He’s been nursing an injury but he’s bought into what the coaches are preaching in the room. He’s just a great leader. When you lead by example, boy, you just can’t ask for anything more.”
Nelson continued to press and were rewarded with a beauty of a goal. Andrews gave Broadbent cross-eyes with a nasty deke for a 5-2 lead on what Hulston said is the team’s goal of the year thus far.
Andrews ended up on the ice behind the Rebels’ net when he was mobbed by his teammates with the kind of celebration usually reserved for overtime dramatics and not second-period goals.
“Obviously sportsmanship is key against a team like [Castlegar],” said Hulston. “It’s hard not to get involved in the rivalry and want to throw it in their face.”
The Rebels thought they had pulled one back in the dying minutes of the second. All five players began to celebrate thinking the puck had crossed the line, but no light flashed and the Leafs took advantage of the confusion by taking possession and racing back up the ice.
Castlegar did end up getting a goal although its players had to wait a while for it to happen. Lindsay capitalized on a rebound during a power play with five minutes left in regulation to cut the Rebels’ deficit to two goals.
But the comeback never happened, and the Leafs left the ice with two points and plenty of satisfaction.
LEAFLETS: Leafs D Kyle Chernenkoff (lower body) and D Aigne McGeady-Bruce (illness) sat out. F Nicholas Ketola meanwhile served the final of his three-game suspension. … Nelson next visits the Spokane Braves on Saturday.