Nicholas Wihak made it only as far as the bench before he crumpled.
The Nelson Leafs forward was skating in the neutral zone during the first period Saturday when he was blindsided by an elbow from Castlegar’s Chase Daniels.
He slumped to the boards then went to his knees and needed assistance from team trainers to get back up.
And that was just the start of a long night for the Leafs.
Everett Hicks scored a hat trick as the Castlegar Rebels hammered the Leafs 5-1 to tie their first-round playoff series at two. Brandon Costa and Shawn Campbell also scored for the Rebels while Chandler Billinghurst made 23 saves for the win.
Wihak returned to play, albeit with a sore neck, and had the lone goal for the Leafs two nights after they stunned Castlegar 3-2 in a game that lasted four overtimes.
The side effects of Game 1, Wihak said, followed the Leafs into Game 2.
“I think we were a little bit too slow to start off,” he said. “I think we were a little bit too high coming off that game. We played really well and we deserved to be happy about our play, but at the end of the day we didn’t come out strong enough to fend off Castlegar’s attack.”
The loss was made far worse by a head injury to starting goaltender Devin Allen, who had been sensational on Thursday with a 53-save performance.
But Rebels forward Vince Bitonti brought his stick down on hard Allen’s helmet in the first, and the netminder played one more period before leaving the game as a precaution. Bitonti somehow escaped the incident with only a pair of minor penalties for slashing and roughing.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “[Allen] had a great first game and as I said to him, none of the goals that were scored [tonight] were a result of his play. He was left to his own devices.”
The status of Allen, who allowed all five goals on 21 shots, is unknown for Game 3 on Monday in Nelson.
That opened the door for Dorian Laganiere-Labranche, who stopped seven shots in the third period. The Leafs acquired Laganiere-Labranche from the Golden Rockets before the game, albeit with the understanding from B.C. Hockey that he would only play if a starter was injured.
There was little doubt from the opening faceoff which team was playing hungry in Game 2. Nelson spent the first two periods often in its own zone and seemed to have difficulty completing a pass, much less setting up an offensive play.
Castlegar head coach Bill Rotheisler said his team went back to the basics after Game 1.
“I think we spend so much time going through X’s and O’s and trying to strategize … I think that sometimes hurts more than it helps,” he said. “So the guys are all prepared. They’ve got all their X’s and O’s, and at this point in the series you know they know all they need to know about the team.”
The Rebels pounced early. Leafs forward Jack Karran was sent to the box for tripping and moments later Costa was waiting at the far post for an easy tap in just two minutes into the game.
Six minutes later the Rebels’ John Moeller fed Campbell with a snappy pass over Allen’s doorstep and suddenly it was 2-0 for Castlegar.
The Rebels opened up a three-goal lead at 6:54. Allen stopped the initial shot by Daneel Lategan but the rebound went straight to Hicks. He wired an unsaveable shot and went to a knee with a fist pump as he skated by the Nelson bench.
“They’re a good puck movement team and we weren’t quite prepared for them out there,” said Leafs defenceman Zach Morey. “They got a couple easy ones off the beginning because we weren’t ready.”
Wihak stopped the bleeding just 50 seconds later. He banged the puck past Billinghurst to give the Leafs a much-needed goal.
Castlegar was quick to strike again after the first intermission. Hicks showed off his speed to hold off two Leafs players before finishing with a deke around Allen’s pads for a 4-1 lead at 17:07.
Hicks’s speed burnt the Leafs yet again at 6:11. He zipped in on Allen’s left and completed his hat trick to put a dagger in Nelson with half the game still to play.
Meanwhile on the same play, Leafs forward Dale Howell was on the bench when he appeared to punch a Rebels player. After Hicks’s goal Howell was tossed with a game misconduct, and suddenly Nelson was without one of its top scorers.
DiBella said Howell’s penalty was inexcusable.
“I thought it was totally undisciplined and unnecessary, and as a 20-year-old leader I was very disappointed.”
When the third period began, the Rebels seemed content to hold their lead and the final 20 minutes took on an air of complacency. That made sense considering both teams have now played the better part of 10 periods of hockey through just two games.
Wihak said despite Saturday’s loss, the Leafs are returning home with a road win. That’s all they could have asked for before the series began.
“We come home after we split here, hopefully we play better at home and we should be able to come out strong,” he said. “All the fans there should give us a boost. I don’t think anyone’s going to come out flat, especially in a packed barn.”
With files from Castlegar News reporter Chelsea Novak.