Billy Gorn told his Leafs teammates it felt as though they’d just played a playoff game. If only all playoff games were as thrilling as this one was.
The Leafs goaltender was sensational but skated off the ice with his head down after Nelson lost 2-1 in overtime to division rival Beaver Valley in a Saturday matinee. The game was breathless from start to finish, and saw the Leafs hang with a Nitehawks team that has at times looked invincible this season.
“The stakes were high, two big rivals on a New Year’s Eve classic,” said Gorn. “Definitely felt like a playoff game and hopefully we can play every game as hard as we played that one.”
The game appeared as though it would go to double-OT. But with just 2.1 seconds on the clock, Tyler Ghiradosi took Gorn by surprise with a quick shot off the faceoff, and the Nitehawks rightly celebrated as though they’d just won in the post-season.
Ghiradosi’s goal came after the Leafs themselves nearly won it twice in OT. But they were denied, first on a splits save by Tallon Kramer then again moments later on a point-blank shot by Logan Wullum that was denied by the glove of the Nitehawks goalie.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said the play Ghiradosi scored on seemed as though it were happening in slow motion from his view on the bench.
“It was just one of those plays were you think, ‘oh no, I can see it happening,'” said DiBella. “You can’t stop it from happening, right?”
The goal ended what was a terrific goaltender duel. Gorn finished with 27 saves, while Kramer stopped 31 and often looked like a Junior B version of Carey Price.
Mason Mullaney scored the lone goal for the Leafs (15-16-3), who lost their third straight. Mullaney’s father travelled from Regina for the game, which he said fuelled his motivation. A crowd of 563 fans at the Nelson and District Community Complex didn’t hurt either.
“The stands were packed. Everyone wanted to give it all for everyone who came to the game, not only for ourselves but for our families who came,” said Mullaney.
Tyler Hartman also scored for the league-leading Nitehawks (25-4-3), who won their third straight game.
The first period was light on whistles as the refs let both teams get loose. That remained the case after a ferocious hit by Leafs forward Alex Meeker on Ryan Terpsma sent the Nitehawks defenceman horizontal alongside the boards.
Beaver Valley killed off a penalty then took their own turn with a 5-on-3, but the Leafs weathered the storm. Several Nitehawks players raised their arms as though they’d scored with 23 seconds left in the first, but no goal was called. Both teams went into the intermission with only 10 total shots on goal.
The Leafs picked up their pace after the break. That paid off at 8:56 when Mullaney wired a snapshot past Kramer’s right shoulder to give Nelson a 1-0 lead after plenty of pressure in the Beaver Valley zone.
That lead held through the remainder of the period. Nelson couldn’t take advantage of a late 5-on-3 man advantage but went into the break having dominated the Nitehawks offensively, outshooting the visitors 17-5.
The trip to the locker-room ignited Beaver Valley. Only seconds into the third a Nitehawks shot bounced off the Leafs’ post and returned to a shooter, but Gorn was ready for the second chance.
The Nitehawks didn’t waste their next opportunity. Seconds later Hartman got his stick on the puck and beat Gorn during a scramble in front of the Leafs net to tie the game at one.
Meeker had a golden chance to put Nelson ahead at the midway point of the period. He finished off a 2-on-1 with a shot that appeared to beat Kramer but slid wide of the net.
Beaver Valley’s Dylan Heppler had his own opportunity late after he was left alone with the puck deep in the Leafs zone, but Gorn stood tall. Moments later Kramer sent a shockwave through the crowd with a post-to-post save on a Nelson rush.
That sequence turned out to be the climax of regulation, and the frenetic game moved onto overtime.
Saturday’s game was the first of 10 in a row on Nelson ice. And even though they earned only a point against Beaver Valley, the game provided further proof this isn’t the same Leafs side that struggled through November.
“We’re a completely different team. Everyone’s mind has changed,” said Mullaney. “We’ve realized that our team’s hot. We want to produce every night. It’s a push for playoffs, trying to get better spots in the standings, trying to get home-ice advantage, so that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Leaflets: Nelson F Jordan Unger was traded during the holiday break to the Saskatoon Quakers for future considerations. Unger, a Saskatoon native, was signed by the Leafs in November. … In Unger’s place, the Leafs picked up F Nick Wihak from the Columbia Valley Thunder for future considerations. The rookie entered the game with four goals and eight assists in 17 appearances. … The Leafs were without injured D Brennan Grocock, while F Jack Karran and D Brent Headon were healthy scratches. … Nelson and Beaver Valley both played the game wearing alternate jerseys. … The Leafs next host the Golden Rockets on Friday.