Kyle Chernenkoff was defiant.
No, he said, the Leafs’ season is not essentially over. They can come back from a 3-0 series deficit. They can find an answer for their opponents, even though Nelson’s best game of the series still wasn’t good enough.
“It’s going to take everything we have,” said Chernenkoff. “We have to give everything we have. It’s literally life or death in tomorrow night’s game. It’s just going to have to come from the heart.”
The Leafs will need that and more if they want to stave off elimination.
Tyler Ghiradosi scored twice as the Beaver Valley Nitehawks defeated the Leafs 6-2 on Friday in Nelson to take a commanding lead in their KIJHL playoff series.
Tallon Kramer stopped 24 shots while Jace Weegar, Devin Nemes, Dylan Heppler and Tyler Hartman also scored for the Nitehawks, who will have a chance to sweep the Leafs in Nelson on Saturday.
Chernenkoff didn’t want to hear the odds.
“Fortunately it’s a best-of-seven series,” said the Leafs defenceman. “Three games doesn’t mean anything. They can win three in a row, doesn’t mean we can’t.”
Levi Hulston and Andy Fitzpatrick each scored for the Leafs. Josh Williams, who was yanked in Game 1 after allowing three quick goals, made his return to the Nelson net. He was more than competent this time around, finishing with 25 saves.
The Leafs nearly tied the game seven minutes into the third as they trailed 2-1. Hulston stole the puck and found himself one-on-one with Kramer. The Nelson forward deked several times but was denied by Kramer’s blocker.
Nelson head coach Mario DiBella praised the play of Kramer, whose play put pressure on the Leafs to make something happen.
“When you are up two games to none, you aren’t grasping your stick quite as tight as the fellas who are down 2-0,” said DiBella. “[Beaver Valley] were a poised team. They took advantage of some of their opportunities and their goaltender made some terrific saves at the start there that really kept the score for them on the winning side.”
Ghiradosi gave Beaver Valley an insurance goal with over eight minutes left in regulation. He was in the slot for a quick goal that the Leafs unsuccessfully argued was a kicked-in shot.
The game was essentially over after Chernenkoff was charged with tripping at the five-minute mark. The Nitehawks used an eye-crossing power play that featured plenty of passes and ended with a Heppler shot past a helpless Williams for a 4-1 advantage.
“Beaver Valley does a great job getting in front of your way,” said Williams. “Even 5-on-5, you’re looking through two, three bodies every shot from outside. They do a really good job.
“We were really good at boxing them out. I felt I could see the puck for the most part. The boys will be going tomorrow, for sure.”
Fitzpatrick put a jolt of life into the crowd with a power-play goal, Nelson’s first of the series, with less than two minutes left. But seconds later Ghiradosi added his second of the game into the Leafs’ empty net for one final twist of the dagger. Yet another empty netter followed from Hartman, which sent fans to the doors.
The sin bin had plenty of use during the first period – there were 10 penalties total – as both teams opened Game 3 with a lot more pace and physicality.
Neither team found the back of the net but each had chances. Sam Weber had the best chance as the speedy Leafs forward fired a shot on Kramer, forced the Nitehawks goalie to make a second save on the rebound and then circled around the net to collect another bounce.
The goals finally came in the second to the delight of 510 fans at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Weegar managed to bang in a rebound on a rush to get Beaver Valley on the scoreboard at 14:09, but the Leafs answered just 39 seconds later. Hulston tucked the puck past Kramer’s pads on a soft wraparound to tie the game.
Nelson had just finished killing off a penalty when they conceded their second goal of the game. Nemes whipped a shot past Williams at 6:53 to put the Nitehawks back up 2-1, a lead they held into the second intermission.
The Leafs benefited from the return of two key players, with forward Blair Andrews and defenceman Dash Thompson each returned to the lineup.
Andrews said it was important to him to get back in the lineup. He’s in his final year with the team and had a hard time watching from the sidelines. He said the Leafs aren’t ready to say goodbye after Saturday’s game, and that will show on the ice.
“You don’t look at the scoreboard. You just look at each other, you just look at who you want to play for, and look at the jersey, look at the Leaf and look to the guy next to you and play as a team and do the best you can.”
That kind of sentiment will likely draw a smile from DiBella. His own post-game message to the Leafs was blunt.
“No one has the right to quit,” said DiBella. “We’ve told [the players] that we’ve burned the boats and there’s no looking back.”
Leaflets: D Aigne McGeady-Bruce (illness) and D Max Daerendinger (upper body) remain out with injuries for the Leafs. F Cleary Ambrose didn’t play Friday. … There was a delay during the first period when the buzzer inexplicably went off during play. It took a lengthy meeting between the officiating crew and the time keepers table to sort out the mess.
(CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated Tyler Ghiradosi scored three goals. His actual goal total was two.)