A rollercoaster playoff game ended the way no one would have wanted – with a questionable call.
The pivotal moment in Game 3 came when Nelson Leafs forward Logan Wullum collided with Castlegar Rebels defenceman Ian Wentworth during double overtime Monday. Wentworth went to the ice, and play was stopped shortly after.
The officials gathered to debate what had happened, and soon Wullum was on his way to the box for a checking to the head penalty to the protests of the Leafs, who thought the contact was coincidental.
Moments later Logan Styler scored on the power play, and the Rebels swarmed the ice to celebrate a 5-4 victory as well as a 2-1 series lead.
“It’s frustrating, but we have to kill penalties off all game and it’s on us,” said Leafs forward Dale Howell. “Can’t rely on the ref to give us calls. We have to play in-between whistles. It’s unfortunate but I don’t blame Logan for that at all.”
Wullum’s penalty was perplexing since referee Andre Gagnon watched the collision happen and neglected to call it. The actual call, once play was stopped several seconds later, was made by a linesman.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said his team only had themselves to blame after blowing a 3-1 lead.
“We victimized ourselves with a let down in that third period when we allowed them back in the game,” he said. “That’s on us, not on the officials.”
John Moeller scored a hat trick and Daniel Petten scored short-handed for Castlegar, while goaltender Chandler Billinghurst made 31 saves.
Brendan Makay, Alex Meeker, Howell and Jacob Karran each scored for the Leafs, while Devin Allen stopped 24 shots.
Game 4 is Tuesday in Nelson.
The Leafs looked far better in the first period Monday than at any point during Saturday’s 5-1 loss in Game 2. The sense of panic, and most certainly fatigue, was gone. What that meant practically was a team who didn’t force plays, took time to get set up and as such looked far better offensively.
It was the Leafs who scored first with just 6.9 seconds left before the first intermission. Sawyer Hunt streaked into the Rebels’ zone and whipped a shot that Billinghurst saved but couldn’t control. A trailing Makay however was there to dump in the rebound and suddenly the Leafs had their first lead since Game 1.
Nelson and Castlegar traded goals during a zesty second period.
Leafs call-up Aiden Jenner was in the sin bin when Moeller took a cross-ice pass for a routine goal to tie the game.
But Nelson reasserted itself five minutes later. A shot by Jack Karran went through a crowd and found Billinghurst’s pads first and Meeker’s stick second, leading to a 2-1 Leafs’ lead.
Howell made it 3-1 on the breakout. He shifted up a gear then made a move to beat Billinghurst and celebrated with an emphatic fist pump.
Castlegar was undeterred. An always dangerous Logan Styler snapped a shot that rebounded to Moeller and cut the deficit to one at 4:27 heading into the second intermission.
Allen, who returned to action after getting slashed to the helmet in Game 2, looked settled in Nelson’s net throughout the game. His best saves were a pair of lightning-quick moves in the opening minutes of the third to deny the Rebels a tying goal.
But he couldn’t beat Moeller five minutes into the period. The Rebels forward, who was dominant throughout the game, capped his hat trick by wrapping around Allen to tie the game at three.
The Leafs were on the power play when a defensive breakdown led to a Petten breakaway. He had plenty of time to slow down and deke Allen out of his pads for a short-handed goal to give Castlegar its first lead of the game.
“It sucks,” said Nelson forward Ryan Piva. “We got all that momentum going forward, for them to put it down like that, it just takes a toll on us.”
That would have been a dagger were it not for another shocking goal, this time in Nelson’s favour.
Piva hustled on the forecheck to disrupt the Rebels’ defence and managed to get the puck back to Jacob Karran, whose shot deflected off a Castlegar player past Billinghurst for a miracle goal at 7:55.
Piva’s solo effort drew accolades from Howell after the game.
“It starts with little things like that,” said Howell. “It doesn’t show on the scoresheet but it’s little things like that that the guys definitely notice and leads to us tying up the game. That’s definitely key for us to win.”
Howell nearly had a game winner in the dying minutes after he deked a defender with a toe drag but couldn’t fool Billinghurst. That was Nelson’s best, last chance in regulation, and the game moved onto overtime.
The series, which has already stretched over nearly 15 periods of hockey through just three games, reached a new high Monday. And if Howell’s right, it’s only really just getting started.
“It’s far from over, it’s only a 2-1 series,” he said. “The best news is we get to go again tomorrow night.”