Andy Fitzpatrick had never seen so many fans cheering him on before.
The Nelson Leafs veteran couldn’t believe the support Saturday when a raucous crowd of 1,024 crammed into the Nelson and District Community Complex to watch Game 6.
“When we scored that one goal, it just blew up,” he said. “It was so loud in there.”
That one goal, scored by Kyle Rosolowski, gave the Leafs a 1-0 win over the Castlegar Rebels and a 4-2 series victory.
Nelson entered the series having barely secured third place in the Neil Murdoch Division, while the Rebels were surging on a six-game winning streak. Nelson had also lost six-of-eight regular season meetings with Castlegar.
But the Leafs outlasted the Rebels through an astonishing 27 periods of hockey in just six games.
They did it by playing a hard physical game, using tight defence to box out Rebels’ snipers, and relying on a several sensational performances by goaltender Devin Allen.
The Leafs’ defence, which was buoyed by the return of Michael LeNoury and Brent Headon in Game 4, was so good at boxing out the Rebels’ offence that they earned praise from Castlegar head coach Bill Rotheisler after Game 6.
“We knew they have a lot of good players. They’ve had their moments in the year where they’ve strung together some good wins against some good teams, so we knew they certainly had the potential to do that, but were we surprised with how good they were defensively? Yes, absolutely,” said Rotheisler.
Now the upstart Leafs turn their attention to Beaver Valley Nitehawks, who have knocked Nelson out of the playoffs in each of the last four years.
Game 1 was Tuesday night in Fruitvale after the Star’s publication deadline.
The Nitehawks finished the season atop the KIJHL standings and at times seemed invincible, highlighted by an incredible 16-game winning streak. The Nitehawks also excel at special teams, finishing the season second overall in power-play percentage and third in penalty killing.
“Beaver Valley is a very hard working team,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “They score by committee. They have quite a few players with a big number of goals. They’re coached very well and they don’t give up.”
So yes, Beaver Valley is a very good team. But so was Castlegar.
“To be successful against them I just think we need to continue with the game plan that we started with Castlegar, that we’re committed to ferocious team defence,” said DiBella. “We have to play a physical brand with them and we have to get into the offensive zone and take away their goaltender’s eyes with getting traffic to the net.”
Added Fitzpatrick: “They run four lines really well, so everyone’s going to have to be really sharp. It’s the same thing [as Castlegar], being responsible in the D-zone. Good offence is good defence right?”
The Leafs’ biggest obstacle will be the one standing in Beaver Valley’s crease. Tallon Kramer owned a 1.81 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in 35 regular season games.
Allen said he’s looking forward to duelling with Kramer. “I know Tallon really well, he knows me, we know what each other are like, and it’s going to be a fun battle,” he said.
Despite the long series against the Rebels, the Leafs don’t think fatigue will be a factor in the division final.
For their part, the Nitehawks should be well rested after breezing through their first series with a four-game sweep of the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
Fitzpatrick said the Nitehawks shouldn’t expect another easy romp against Nelson.
“Everything seemed to come together really nicely in that Castlegar series,” he said. “We were playing some really good hockey. If we can keep it up that way we should be good.”
With files from Castlegar News reporter Chelsea Novak.