Jason Sandhu knows he’s expected to be the Nelson Leafs’ No. 1 goalie. He’d just rather not hear that right now.
Sandhu, who the Leafs acquired in the off-season, made 21 saves in his debut with the team as Nelson defeated Beaver Valley 4-2 in pre-season play Wednesday.
It was a good first game for Sandhu, who stopped several close scoring opportunities by a Nitehawks squad that appears to be mostly made up of last year’s division-winning roster. Still, Sandhu said he isn’t playing as though the starting role is already his.
“I can’t expect it to be just given to me,” said Sandhu. “I can’t go out there and have a bad game. I still have to battle for my spot just like everyone else. I’m looking forward to it.”
Sandhu said he was surprised to be acquired in June, but that the transition was made easier with the Leafs also acquiring his teammate Dale Howell from the PJHL’s Ridge Meadows Flames in the same deal.
“It’s nice to come with my buddy Dale. We’ve known each other since we were young,” said Sandhu. “It was good to come to an organization that wants to win this year and they’ve made the steps towards it.”
Sandhu already has an early fan in Leafs head coach Mario DiBella, who made it a priority to find a veteran goaltender during the summer. DiBella said he was as impressed by what Sandhu did offensively as by what the 19-year-old did with the game on the line.
“Offensively he contributed an assist and made a couple great outlet passes,” said DiBella. “I’m going to have him run a few defensive drills and show the D-men how to make those quick breakout passes.”
The Leafs’ victory was led by new acquisitions like Sandhu who the team hope will return them to playoff contention. Sawyer Hunt scored twice, including the go-ahead goal, while Jack Karran, who was invited to camp, had his fourth goal in two games following a hat trick Tuesday night.
Veteran Sam Weber also scored for Nelson, which was trailing 2-0 until they scored three unanswered goals in the second period.
Dylan Heppler and Nolan Percival scored for the Nitehawks. Talon Kramer, Brendon Gustafsson and Keaton Boni each played a period in the Beaver Valley net and combined to stop 25 shots.
The game was immediately more measured than the circus that was the Leafs’ 10-2 win over the Castlegar Rebels in the pre-season opener Tuesday.
Heppler opened the scoring for Beaver Valley eight minutes into the first period. He found the puck in front of the Leafs’ net with Sandhu out of position for an easy goal.
Sandhu closed the dying seconds of the period, however, with a kick save to stop a breakaway by Tyler Ghirardosi.
DiBella wasn’t a fan of the team’s blue-line breakdowns in the opening 20 minutes, and said the defensive corps still needs to learn how to work together.
“I think that we have a mix of veterans and rookies who might be playing a little bit tight with the puck. They just need to relax a little bit and work with one another as cohesive unit, and things will get better for them. They’ll improve.”
One defender the Leafs will be leaning on is Austin Steger.
Acquired by Nelson in a June trade with the VIJHL’s Campbell River Storm, Steger suffered a blow to the head during the game that had him drift off the ice straight into a referee on his way to the bench. Charlie Wilkie, who made his mark during Tuesday’s game, filled in briefly on the blue-line and Steger later returned no worse for wear after being cleared of a concussion.
Injury aside, Steger is excited by how everything is coming together early on for the Leafs.
“It feels like we’ve been together all year,” he said. “For guys coming together right before the season to gel like this so quickly, it’s definitely been new for me, that’s for sure.”
The Nitehawks padded their lead five minutes after the intermission ended. A giveaway in the Leafs zone led to Heppler circling the net and finding Percival for the tap-in.
The Leafs finally got on the scoreboard on a rising snapshot by a speedy Karran that fooled Gustafsson. Then with four minutes left in the period, Weber broke out alone on Kramer and beat him over the left shoulder to tie the game 2-2.
Only 41 seconds later Nelson took its first lead of the game. Hunt got a stick on the puck in the middle of a busy scrum, and it trickled past a sprawled out Gustafsson.
The third period featured plenty of hockey at both sides of the rink and each team took turns on the fast break. The Nitehawks momentarily thought they’d tied the game on a deflection, but the goal was waved for deflecting off an arm.
That seemed to burn off both team’s energy, and the game came to a plodding conclusion.
Leaflets: The Leafs finish the pre-season road games against Beaver Valley on Friday and Castlegar on Sunday. They open the regular season Sept. 9 back at Fruitvale against the Nitehawks. Nelson’s home opener is Sept. 16 against the Spokane Braves.