After just one game, Billy Gorn thinks his new team is spectacular. Maybe that’s what the Nelson Leafs really are.
Gorn only just arrived in Nelson on Wednesday after being released from his Junior A team in Fort Francis, Ont. He had been coveted by Leafs head coach Mario DiBella, who was short one goaltender after trading Jason Sandhu to Kamloops prior to Thursday’s roster cut deadline.
So it was Gorn in net Saturday to face the league-leading Creston Valley Thunder Cats. The game made a good first impression on him.
“Definitely a really hard-working team, likes to forecheck, likes to play in the gritty areas and that’s how you win games, so pretty happy to see that,” said Gorn.
And if there’s any doubt, he was in fact talking about the Nelson Leafs. The same team that lost all but one game in November looked like world-beaters Saturday, but then this wasn’t the same team at all. DiBella and general manager Sean Dooley made an eye-crossing nine moves ahead of the deadline.
The payoff of all that work was arguably the Leafs’ best game of the season.
Gorn stopped 27 shots and Alex Meeker scored a stunning goal in his debut as Nelson upset the Thunder Cats 4-2 in a statement victory.
Jack Karran, Colum McGauley and Andy Fitzpatrick scored for the Leafs (11-14-2), who have won two games in a row for the first time since Oct. 15.
Paxton Malone and Justen James scored for the Thunder Cats (20-5-2), and former Leafs goaltender Patrick Ostermann made 25 saves.
Nelson hardly looked intimidated by the best team in the KIJHL. The offence was dangerous, the defence effective and for 60 minutes the Leafs didn’t look like a team in a tailspin – they looked like championship contenders.
“Creston may have 20 skaters that all look the same, [but some of our skaters] are singers, some are dancers, and that combination just manages to give that kind of enthusiasm on the ice,” said DiBella. “Guys taking the body, guys going hard to the net, guys taking great shots. It was an all-out great team effort.”
That effort started in goal with Gorn. He made two spectacular saves to break up consecutive Creston attacks, the first with a timely stick check and the second with a post-to-post pad kick that would have been familiar to any Kirk MacLean fans in the stands.
He wasn’t concerned when asked about the Thunder Cats’ record. “Yeah I’m aware of that. It’s kind of hard to miss that. Just prepared as always, it’s just another game, doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”
It was the first meeting between both teams since Oct. 29 when Creston hammered Nelson 7-1. That contest was an ugly one featuring a line brawl and ending with several suspensions and injuries on both sides.
Hostilities renewed with four minutes left in the first period Saturday. Creston defenceman Liam Rycroft slashed Jordan Unger, prompting the Leafs forward to respond by dropping his gloves and getting kicked out of the game.
On the ensuing Leafs power play, Ostermann couldn’t handle a point shot and Karran pounced on the rebound to give Nelson a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
Creston Valley came out more determined after the break. The Thunder Cats pinned the Leafs down for the first three minutes but couldn’t beat Gorn and Nelson replied in kind. McGauley was in the slot when he whipped a shot that was too hot for Ostermann, giving the Leafs a surprising 2-0 lead.
McGauley was often the Leafs’ best player on the ice, which was especially impressive considering how good the team was Saturday. The 16 year old, who made the team out of training camp and is already centring its top line, made several slick passes and was a reliable spark to the Leafs’ forecheck.
“It’s been really great for me,” said McGauley. “Everybody here, they’ve all just been helping me out here. It just makes it easier for me to stand out I guess.”
The Thunder Cats finally got on the board thanks to a Leafs penalty. Defenceman Aigne McGeady-Bruce was in the box on a cross-checking charge when Malone, the league-leading scorer who was acquired earlier this week from the Spokane Braves, beat Gorn for his 17th goal and 47th point of the season.
Nelson changed tactics in the third to a more defensive approach as the team tried to protect its lead. But there was nothing conservative about what happened next.
Meeker, playing in his first game since he was acquired Thursday from the 100 Mile House Wranglers, sent a shockwave through the crowd of 330 at the Nelson and District Community Complex. The forward turned on the afterburners to generate a breakaway, which he finished with a backhand deke on Ostermann to put Nelson up 3-1.
Meeker shouldn’t have looked as good as he did. He had just driven to Nelson the night before and was battling a cold when he took the ice.
“I’m not a guy just who likes to score,” he said with a raspy voice. “I like to be hard to play against, and that’s part of my game.”
Added DiBella: “[Meeker]’s only been here for less than 24 hours and he’s already leading by example in the room and encouraging his teammates. He’s a hell of a kid.”
A short time later the Leafs found themselves on a 5-on-3 and the Thunder Cats without their coach on the bench. Creston forward Grant Iles was tossed for roughing after the whistle, and head coach Jeff Dubois followed him to the locker-room after he protested a little too loudly.
The two-man advantage came to nought, and that proved costly minutes later. The Thunder Cats had a power play of their own and James whipped a shot in from the faceoff circle to cut Nelson’s lead to one.
Creston Valley ramped up the pressure, but Fitzpatrick’s empty-net goal with 28 seconds left secured a statement win for the Leafs.
The memory of their loss in Creston was still fresh for the Leafs, who celebrated just a little more Saturday than after a typical win.
“They sent out a 20 year old to fight a 17 year old on our team,” recalled DiBella. “A staged fight, which was garbage in my opinion. It shows a lack of class and leadership from the Creston coaching staff. We weren’t our best that night and I think the players were prepared to come back and show that wasn’t the team [Creston] was going to see for the rest of the year.”
The Leafs and Thunder Cats meet again Jan. 27 in Nelson. Mark it on the calendar.
Leaflets: It’s a quick turnaround for the Leafs, who next host the Grand Forks Border Bruins on Sunday at 7 p.m.