The what-if scenarios are too tantalizing to dismiss.
What if the Nelson Leafs don’t give up a three-goal lead early in the game? What if they played as well in the first period as they did the rest of the game? What if two late Nelson goals aren’t waved off?
Those are the questions the Leafs were asking themselves after falling 7-5 to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in a thrilling Game 1 of the Neil Murdoch semifinals in Fruitvale on Tuesday.
“If you give us those goals that were disallowed for whatever reason, and maybe that would be overtime right?” said Jordan Davie. “Take away the empty net and we’re on top.”
Dylan Heppler and Kyle Hope each scored twice for Beaver Valley, which finished the regular season first in the division. Jason Weegar, Blake Sidoni and Tyler Hartman also scored while Brett Clark made 38 saves for the Nitehawks.
Nicholas Ketola, Riley Swiscoski, Matt Sokol, Brendan Smith and Rayce Miller replied for the Leafs. Goaltender Josh Williams got the start but was pulled early after allowing three goals on nine shots. Patrick Ostermann took over and finished with 36 saves.
Game 2 is Wednesday in Fruitvale before the series moves to Nelson on Friday and Saturday.
Where Williams looked unprepared Ostermann was steady. He was especially good in the third period with several close saves included one in which he slid to the post to deny a Nitehawks shooter right at the goal-line.
The Leafs made a game of it down 5-3 in the third. Sam Weber used his speed to race in and fire a shot that Smith tipped in past Clark to make it a one-goal contest with just under eight minutes left in regulation.
But less than a minute later Heppler scored his second of the game, banging a rebound past Ostermann to give the Nitehawks an insurance goal they spent most of the game not in need of.
The Leafs pulled Ostermann with less than two minutes left and the move paid off. Miller jammed the puck into Beaver Valley’s net at 1:28 to make it a one-goal lead and give the Leafs a shot of late hope. But the lightning didn’t strike twice and Hope scored an empty-net goal to put the game out of reach for Beaver Valley.
Nelson had two goals waved off by the officiating crew during the period, despite emphatic protesting by Leafs players that the puck crossed the line. Davie, who was on the ice for the second waved off goal, swore it was in.
“Me and Sokol were hugging. It hit the back of the net and it went so fast, it came back out,” said Davie. “It was underneath the goalie and the linesman and the ref both figured that it never went in. You could hear their D-men chuckling because they’re keeping quiet, not trying to say anything.
“That’s how you know it’s in, when the other team’s completely silent. If it didn’t go in you see guys going, ‘No no no,’ but they were dead quiet after that one.”
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella was more concerned about the disallowed goals than the early hole his team found themselves in. He said he could see from the bench that both goals were good.
“What do you say when your team battles back from a 3-0 deficit, fights through the adversity, scores and doesn’t get rewarded?”
Even so, the Leafs gave the Nitehawks something to think about. What looked like a rout in the making changed entirely after the second period, and may yet set the tone for the series.
Beaver Valley head coach Terry Jones said his team got away with a win.
“I thought our first period was as good as hockey as we’ve played,” said Jones. “The second was worse and the third was terrible. So we got the ‘W’ and that’s what we’re looking for this time of the year. We’ll figure out a better way to do it tomorrow.”
The Leafs looked like a team made to be swept after the Nitehawks scored first-period three goals in one minute three seconds on Williams.
The Nitehawks rattled the Leafs early in the first period with three goals in just over a minute.
Weegar struck first on the power play with a quick shot that beat Williams at 15:17.
Just 10 seconds later Beaver Valley made it 2-0. Williams lost control of the puck and it slipped over the line on a goal credited to Sidoni, but was more on the Leafs goaltender than anyone else.
The goals kept coming. Hope batted in a bouncing puck past Williams at 14:20, giving the Nitehawks an intimidating lead. Williams meanwhile was yanked less then eight minutes into regulation for Ostermann.
Smith said the team couldn’t blame the loss on Williams, who DiBella added would likely get the start again for Game 2.
“I think the whole team has to come prepared and it starts with the goalie and up,” said Smith. “We can’t ever blame one player. It’s the team, and it’s a seven-game series. I think you’ve got to bounce back, stay positive, give [Williams] a pat on the back and get up.”
Nelson didn’t break. Ketola wrapped around the Beaver Valley net and somehow found a way to beat Clark, who was already in position, to cut the deficit to two at 3:28.
That would have been a momentum changer had Beaver Valley not answered quickly. Ostermann made the first save on Hartman but the Nitehawks forward banged in the rebound through the Leafs goalie’s pads with just over two minutes left for a 4-1 advantage.
Nelson came out firing in the second and was rewarded with a goal from an unlikely contributor.
Swiscoski, a rarely used affiliate player, collected a loose puck in the neutral zone, skated hard in on Clark and beat the netminder with a snapshot. The goal was Swiscoski’s first in the KIJHL and brought Nelson back to within two.
The Leafs got into trouble later in the period. Smith was caught covering the puck in the Nelson crease and the refs awarded Beaver Valley with a penalty shot. Nitehawks forward Keillan Olson took the shot but fired wide on Ostermann.
Beaver Valley made up for the missed opportunity five minutes later. Heppler was parked in front of the Leafs’ net when he batted a puck into the top corner for a 5-2 lead.
Nelson kept pace. Sokol took a quick pass after a forecheck and beat Clark at 1:50 to send the Leafs back to the locker-room trailing by just two.
“Tomorrow,” Davie said, “should be interesting.”
Leaflets: Nelson played a nearly full roster for the first time in recent memory. Only D Dash Thompson (upper body), D Aigne McGeady-Bruce (illness), F Blair Andrews (upper body) and D Max Daerendinger (upper body) were missing from the lineup. DiBella said Daerendinger suffered the injury Feb. 19 at Spokane and would miss the playoffs.