The new-look Nelson Leafs displayed an explosive first line they hope will lead their offence through the new season. They just had to get the first game out of the way before that could happen.
The Leafs opened the KIJHL campaign with a 3-1 loss in Fruitvale against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Friday before rebounding for a 6-2 win in Spokane against the Braves on Saturday.
Two games are too few to judge any team by, especially the first games of the young season. But head coach Mario DiBella said he was encouraged by the response following an ugly outing against Beaver Valley.
“We weren’t happy with the game we had in Beaver Valley,” said DiBella. “I don’t think anyone in the room was satisfied with the result. As a team obviously we need to be better to compete against Beaver Valley, and I think a combination of getting a few games under our belt, the addition of a couple players we’re expecting to come, we’ll be better prepared the next time that we play them.”
Nelson went undefeated through four exhibition games, but weren’t ready for hockey that mattered when the season kicked off Friday. Leafs forward Kolten Nelson opened the scoring just a minute and a half into the game on a short-handed goal, but the team finished the period outshot 16-4.
The Leafs were saved from humiliation by new No. 1 goalie Jason Sandhu, who made 40 saves in the loss. Sandhu returned to the ice in Spokane for a 30-save performance. DiBella, a former Leafs goaltender himself, praised Sandhu for keeping his team competitive through a sometimes shaky weekend.
“It’s refreshing to see that we have that kind of support mechanism on our backend,” said DiBella. “Not just in stopping pucks but the manner in which [Sandhu] can handle the puck and hit players with breakout passes and just the kind of character he exhibits in the dressing room. He’s been a very good acquisition for us.”
The early nerves were gone Saturday when the Leafs arrived in Spokane.
Sawyer Hunt scored twice, while Ryan Piva, David Lenzin, Sam Weber and Dale Howell each chipped in with singles. DiBella juggled his lines, which paid off in a top line centred by Eamonn Miller with Lenzin on right wing and Hunt on the left.
Lenzin, one of eight KIJHL rookies on the roster, assisted Hunt on one of his goals and showed promising chemistry with his linemates.
“He’s a tremendous skater,” said DiBella of Lenzin. “He’s got great work ethic. He plays the game honestly. He comes to play every time he’s on the ice. He started off on a different line and just witnessing his play we decided he would be a good fit on the line with Hunt and Miller just because of how hard he works. He opens up ice for Eamonn to be the playmaker and Hunt to be the trigger man.”
Hunt, meanwhile, was named captain prior to the weekend. One of the Leafs’ top off-season acquisitions, Hunt was already expected to lead the team offensively. Now he’ll do so in the locker-room as well.
DiBella said Hunt was an easy choice to wear the C.
“Sawyer is a leader in the room,” said DiBella. “He asks all the right questions, he holds his teammates accountable, he’s well liked and he’s a local. It’s been a long time since Nelson had a local captain, and Sawyer’s very deserving of that captaincy. We’re just thrilled that he’s with us this year, and he’s showing his teammates what it takes to play in this league.”
Hunt is just one of five Nelson natives on the roster, which also includes Weber, Aigne McGeady-Bruce, Colum McGauley and Ben Kelsch.
There are plenty of new faces on the team, which was overhauled by the coaching staff after last year’s disastrous season. Only eight players from the previous squad made the cut. Forwards Cleary Ambrose, Miller, Andy Fitzpatrick, Weber and Kolten Nelson are back, as is defencemen Zach Morey, McGeady-Bruce and Dash Thompson. Blueliner Brendan Makay, who filled in part-time as an affiliate player last season, will also start the season with the Leafs.
Kelsch, who played goal for the major midget Kootenay Ice last season, was named backup to Sandhu. He tried out for the Creston Valley Thunder Cats but didn’t make the team because of a dearth of netminders. DiBella and general manager Sean Dooley pounced when they saw Kelsch was available.
“Given that he’s a local boy, we wanted to give him the opportunity to come and earn that second spot, which he’s done,” said DiBella.
Two youngsters also stepped onto the ice Friday.
Piva and McGauley, both made the team as 16 year olds. DiBella said he hasn’t expected to start the season with two players so young, but that changed during the pre-season. Piva, who the Leafs had already committed to, was less of a surprise.
“[We] felt that his ability as a penalty killer and his willingness to work hard and his ability to win draws was something that our team required,” said DiBella. “There’s such a huge upside to Ryan playing for us as far as where we see him today knowing where we see him at Christmas time.”
McGauley, meanwhile, was picked 75th overall in last year’s WHL Bantam Draft by the Spokane Chiefs. “Colum was a bit of a surprise,” said DiBella. “We hadn’t seen him play. He came to our camp and we were pleased with his playmaking ability and his skill set as well.”
Leafs fans will get their first look at the team Friday when they host the Spokane Braves.