KIJHL: Leafs fumble home finale

Castlegar downed Nelson 3-2 in the last regular season game at the NDCC.

The Nelson Leafs looked like they were running on empty in a loss to Castlegar on Sunday.

It wasn’t just fans who decided the Super Bowl was more important than Junior B hockey Sunday.

An uninspired Nelson Leafs team looked like it would rather be eating nachos and watching Lady Gaga’s half-time show than playing hockey. The team slumped to a 3-2 loss against the Castlegar Rebels in a game that could have used a Hail Mary or two.

After a back-and-forth first period, the Rebels took control with two goals in the second and never looked back.

“I think we just let them into it,” said Leafs defenceman Kyle Rosolowski, who for the record is not a football fan.

“We let down our guard for a bit there and let them back into the game, which we shouldn’t have been doing. We should have just kept on the gas and kept on firing.”

Daniel Petten, Everett Hicks, John Moeller each scored for the Rebels (26-16-1), while Chandler Billinghurst made 20 saves.

Alex Meeker and Sawyer Hunt scored for the Leafs (18-20-5), who lost their third straight game. Nelson goaltender Devin Allen meanwhile stopped 16 shots in front of a sparse home crowd.

The result, which followed a 4-3 loss to the first-place Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Saturday, means the Leafs can now finish no higher than third in the Neil Murdoch Division. Of course, even that might be a peak too tall.

Leafs coach Mario DiBella said his players showed a lack of urgency against a team they might see in the playoffs. “I would tend to think yesterday’s loss was an emotional loss, and today there were some of them that just seemed disinterested in being at the rink,” he said.

The loss was the Leafs’ final regular-season result at the Nelson and District Community Complex following a 10-game homestand. The team started the stretch strong, but garnered just eight of 20 possible points.

That wasn’t what DiBella had in mind when he petitioned for the long stay at home prior to the season.

“This year we manufactured a schedule we thought would be conducive to winning,” he said. “For the most part we’re healthy, but I don’t think we took advantage of what we had with this 10-game homestand.

“Certainly from our perspective, we look at the team and we say, ‘You just can’t be contented with scoring a goal at a time. You have to be content with playing your best every time you’re out on the ice.'”

Meeker, in his return from a three-game suspension, gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead at 14:51. He stayed with the puck seconds into a power play and batted it in past Billinghurst.

Rebels used quick passing to tie the game. They cycled the puck to Petten, who was waiting for a one-timer that scorched past Allen for a goal at 8:22.

Meeker nearly potted his second of the game in the dying seconds of the first. He was on the Billinghurst’s doorstep for a nice feed from Colum McGauley, but couldn’t beat the Rebels starter.

Castlegar asserted itself in the second. Two minutes into play Hicks used his speed to attack from the wing and beat Allen with a wrist shot for a 2-1 lead.

The Rebels dominated possession, outshooting the Leafs 10-5 and often pinning the home side in its own zone. That paid dividends when Moeller snapped a shot during a long stint of sustained Rebels’ pressure for a two-goal advantage.

The game dragged itself into the third. Nelson pulled Allen and got to within one after Hunt deflected a shot in with just 23 seconds left, but that left no time for the tying goal.

Andy Fitzpatrick said he thinks the playing the final four regular season games on the road will do the Leafs good.

“It’s a really good team builder,” he said. “Everyone gets together, switching roommates every night. It’s good for the chemistry rolling into playoffs.”

As opposed to stumbling into the playoffs.

Leaflets: The Leafs successfully appealed the suspensions of two players. Hunt had his suspension reduced to one game from three by B.C. Hockey, while Dale Howell’s suspension dropped from six to two. That meant both players returned to the lineup for Saturday’s game. Hunt, Howell and Brent Headon (three games) were suspended Jan. 21 for their roles in a brawl against Castlegar. … Nelson’s injury ward included F Sam Weber (lower body), F Logan Wullum (upper body), D Aigne McGeady-Bruce (upper body) and G Billy Gorn (lower body). Gorn is not expected to play again this season. … The Leafs next faces Columbia Valley in Invermere on Friday.

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