Pity the goalie who has to face a Dale Howell slapshot.
In this case, the victim was Golden’s Dorian Laganiere-Labranche. He was often spectacular Saturday in keeping the Rockets alive, but in the first period there was nothing between Laganiere-Labranche and Howell’s howitzer.
“I just buried my head and shot it as hard as I could. Thankfully it went in,” said Howell.
The Nelson Leafs forward created the opportunity by picking up a turnover at Golden’s blue-line before ripping a shot that sent Laganiere-Labranche’s water bottle into the air.
Howell later set up another goal as the Leafs beat the Rockets 4-3 to win their fifth straight game. The Leafs’ recovery from a seven-game losing skid in November isn’t quite complete – they are still fourth in the Neil Murdoch Division and two games behind Castlegar for second place – but a climb up the standings now only feels like a matter of time.
“That losing streak wasn’t what defined us, obviously,” said Howell. “I think we all believed in each other. I don’t think anyone in that room is surprised.”
Mason Mullaney, Logan Wullum and Alex Meeker also scored for the Leafs (14-14-2), while Devin Allen made 22 saves one night after Nelson edged the Rebels 5-4 in Castlegar.
Levi Lambert, Darion Nordick and Austin Pultz replied for the Rockets (4-24-2). Laganiere-Labranche meanwhile finished with 40 saves.
The winning run is Nelson’s best since a six-game streak in October, 2015.
“It feels great,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “I think there’s a quiet confidence in the room now. I think the expectation in the room is that we’re going to win and it’s just a matter of showing up to make sure all the pieces fall into place to get that win.”
Meeker thought he opened the scoring about five minutes into the game. His snapshot bounced over Laganiere-Labranche’s shoulder, but the Rockets goaltender was able to fall on the puck, which cued an emphatic wave from the official.
It ended up being the Rockets who struck first. Lambert’s point shot at 6:39 appeared to deflect off a player and surprise Allen for the 1-0 lead.
That advantage didn’t last long. Laganiere-Labranche had no chance on Howell’s ferocious slapshot, which sent both teams to the locker-room tied at one.
The intermission did Nelson good.
Howell set up Nelson’s second goal two minutes into play. He scooted into Golden’s zone and centred the puck to Mullaney, who snapped a shot over Laganiere-Labranche’s shoulder for the 2-1 advantage.
Howell leads the team in goals with 17 and points with 31. It’s his final year of junior hockey, and he’s doing all he can to make the most of it.
“Beginning of the year it’s kind of same old same old, coming with the same attiitude,” said Howell. “[But] you can feel the clock ticking down a little bit. It just makes you want to play that much harder and it’s a little scary.”
Wullum put the Leafs up by two four minutes later. He held off a defender and went to the ice as he slipped the puck through Laganiere-Labranche’s pads.
But despite being dominated offensively, Golden wouldn’t break. Allen got turned around on an initial Rockets shot and twisted to save the rebound, but couldn’t make it in time as Nordick cut into Nelson’s lead.
“Today I felt they scored two seeing-eye dogs where the puck bounced off three people and went into the net,” said DiBella. “The game wasn’t really a 4-3 game. It was more of a 4-1 game. Give Golden credit. They showed up, they battled and they worked hard.”
The Leafs continued to press in the third. Cooper Schroder had his team’s best opportunity, but was stymied by the stick of Laganiere-Labranche, who was coming off a 30-save performance in Spokane the night before.
But Nelson’s persistence paid off. Rockets defenceman Cordell Boyko failed to clear the puck in front of Laganiere-Labranche and Meeker pounced, stripping the puck and firing off a quick shot for a 4-2 lead.
That goal proved crucial to Nelson. Golden pulled Laganiere-Labranche in the final minute and Pultz took advantage. The Rockets’ captain shot a knuckleball from the point that somehow beat Allen. The goal ended up being only good for Pultz’s stats total as the Leafs simply waited a few moments to secure victory No. 5.
Leaflets: The Leafs were missing F Sam Weber (lower body) D Dash Thompson (lower body), D Brennan Grocock (upper body). … Nelson goes on the road next week for games in Spokane on Friday and Kimberley on Saturday. The Leafs then visit Grand Forks on Dec. 30 before returning home for a New Year’s Eve game against Beaver Valley.