When the goal finally, FINALLY, came, Michael LeNoury reacted the only way he could: He lost his mind.
The Nelson defenceman’s pass was the first of a convoluted play that ended in Sawyer Hunt’s game-winning goal as the Leafs shut down the Castlegar Rebels 1-0 in double overtime on Tuesday.
The victory, which tied the playoff series at two, was sealed when LeNoury connected with teammate Aigne McGeady-Bruce just as he was getting hit. McGeady-Bruce then managed a quick pass to Dale Howell before he was dumped into Castlegar’s bench.
Howell made a move into the opposing zone and found Hunt, who slid in front of Rebels goaltender Chandler Billinghurst and tapped a low shot that found the inside corner.
LeNoury said he didn’t see any of that.
“All I saw was Aigne get put into the bench. I looked over and the puck’s in the net. I didn’t know what to do. I just started freaking out to be honest.”
Hunt, a Nelson native who also scored the quadruple-overtime winner in Game 1, said scoring Tuesday in front of a hometown crowd was a thrilling moment.
“It does feel really good. It’s amazing,” said the Leafs captain. “Playing in the hometown and scoring that goal, it’s the biggest goal I’ve scored. It’s exciting. It’s just good to have a bunch of friends watching.”
The goal only came after the Leafs did everything but score, outshooting the Rebels 40-15 and even holding the visitors to just one shot in the third period. Whereas goaltender Devin Allen had little to do, Rebels netminder Chandler Billinghurst often kept his team alive by will alone.
“The shots say it all,” said LeNoury. “Devin made the saves we needed. I gotta give credit, their goalie made the saves, but I don’t know how the puck didn’t go in the net. Like, oh my god. It seemed like it would go through his legs, go out the other side. We just couldn’t buy one. It finally worked.”
Game 5 is Thursday in Castlegar. The teams have now appeared in 20 periods through just four games, in case anyone has lost count.
The game featured the return of LeNoury and fellow defenceman Brent Headon from suspensions incurred at the end of the regular season. Their presence seemed to provide the Leafs’ blue-line with a major upgrade, and garnered praise from head coach Mario DiBella after the game.
“I thought they were outstanding,” said DiBella. “You look at the addition of LeNoury back there. He’s a monster in men’s clothing. He’s feared, he moves the puck, he’s got a great shot. He just brings a different presence to this team with a confidence they don’t otherwise have.”
It took the Leafs nearly nine minutes to get a shot on net. But when they did it very nearly went in. Alex Meeker was on Billinghurst’s doorstep when his first shot beat the netminder but not the post. The puck rebounded back to Meeker, whose second attempt just barely missed.
Midway through the period, Rebels defenceman Kirkland Spencer missed a hit to Hunt and went hard into the boards. Play continued as Spencer tried to slide across the ice on his knees, and when the whistle was blown he had to be carried off by two teammates.
When the second period began, Nelson poured on the shots but couldn’t beat Billinghurst. The best opportunity came courtesy of Leafs rookie Colum McGauley, who had a wide-open net only to be denied when a sprawled out Billinghurst stuck out his glove in desperation and made an unlikely save.
The scoreless drought continued on into the third. The Leafs offence had been relentless throughout the game as the Rebels seemingly took a night off. But the visitors could afford to do that with Billinghurst owning his net throughout the contest.
The closest the Leafs came was on a chance that fooled the goal judge. Dale Howell slipped into the slot and backhanded a shot that ignited the goal light but didn’t cross the line.
And then, of course, the game went into overtime.
Leaflets: Leafs F Jack Karran left the game with an upper-body injury. His teammate F Logan Wullum sat out all of Game 4 with an upper-body injury of his own. … The game featured the return of G Billy Gorn, who dressed as a backup. He hasn’t played since Jan. 11 with a lower-body injury.