Curt Doyle should have been shaky.
The 16-year-old rookie goaltender, who was called up by the Nelson Leafs from the major midget Kootenay Ice earlier this week, was told by his coaches he was expected to get a win against one of the KIJHL’s elite teams Thursday afternoon.
But instead of showing his inexperience, Doyle put on a star performance that included two save-of-the-year candidates as a new-look Nelson Leafs defeated the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 7-4.
“It’s great to be out there,” said Doyle. “The boys just treat me great and it’s awesome.”
Only the night before Doyle had made 40 saves in 6-5 loss to Beaver Valley in Fruitvale. He got the nod again Thursday and made two saves that had everyone in the Nelson and District Community Complex buzzing.
With the score tied at four, Doyle foiled an early breakaway in the third period. Then, with just over four minutes left, he went post-to-post on a pair of saves to keep Nelson ahead by one.
Leafs coach Mario DiBella, who earned his first win as the team’s head coach, said the latter of Doyle’s highlight-reel saves was the turning point.
“Players gain confidence when they see the goaltender make big saves and Curt made a number of great saves today,” said DiBella. “You see that the players even when they were down 4-2 never felt like they were down and out.”
Doyle, who finished Thursday with 32 saves, is headed back to the Ice, but DiBella said there’s a chance he returns for another game before the season is over.
The goaltender’s performance wasn’t the only one worth talking about.
Nicholas Ketola looked like a hurricane on the ice for most of the game, and his hustle rewarded the team with two quick goals in the second period that tied the score at four.
Jordan Davie had two goals as well, Andy Fitzpatrick scored the game winner, and Blair Andrews and Austin Anselmo each added singles for the Leafs (15-20-1).
Sam Swanson, Blake Sidoni, Allan Pruss and Jace Weegar replied for the division-leading Nitehawks (25-6-4), while Tallon Kramer turned aside 27 shots.
The Leafs roster hardly looked like a team that had limped through a disastrous start to the campaign, and it was Ketola who shone brightest. The forward was buzzing all night with several chances included an early third-period breakaway. He said the improved team atmosphere helped his performance.
“Definitely more positive. It’s way more positive in the locker-room and on the bench,” said Ketola. “When we have a bad shift [DiBella] just tells us to keep going and we do. We’re playing good right now.”
DiBella was happy to return the compliment.
“Outstanding performance. [Ketola] really took some of what we worked on this week in practice to heart and went hard to the net and scored two beautiful goals.”
Andrews opened the scoring with his third goal of the season. The Leafs winger snapped a shot off a face-off that surprised Kramer for a quick Nelson lead.
Davie went upstairs on Kramer nearly four minutes later with a sharp-angle shot for the two-goal lead after some good hustle by Rayce Miller to keep the puck in Beaver Valley’s end.
A bad giveaway by Nelson defenceman Zach Morey allowed the Nitehawks to cut the deficit. He made an ill-advised, cross-ice pass right to Swanson in front of Doyle, who had no chance on the shot.
It was a positive period by the Leafs. They killed off two penalties, skated hard on the forecheck and put sustained pressure on the Nitehawks at the end of the frame. But the good vibes ended after the intermission.
The Nitehawks’ three-goal run in the second period started with a backhand by Sidoni at 17:11 that tied the game at two. Then, right after killing off a 5-on-3 Leafs man advantage, Pruss jumped on a shot that put Beaver Valley by one. Less than two minutes later Doyle gave up a big rebound to Jace Weeger who capitalized at 8:19 for a 4-2 lead.
That set the stage for Ketola to save the Leafs from a disastrous period.
Ketola tipped in a shot by Miller for his first goal at 2:58, and his second just 45 seconds later on an easy tap-in tied the game at four and fired up the crowd. Then Fitzpatrick’s goal at 8:04 in the third gave Nelson a lead the suddenly tenacious team wouldn’t concede.
The victory was only the second for Nelson in 10 games during December, but the win also appeared to wipe the slate clean. If that holds true, it’s impressive for a team that’s only had a handful of practices under its new coaching staff.
“Some of the things that we’re actually doing on the ice we’ve only gone over on a chalkboard, on a hockey board, we haven’t had the opportunity to implement them in a practice situation,” said DiBella. “I have to say that I have a highly intellectual group of hockey players that really want to get better.”
Notes: The Leafs next host the Spokane Braves on Wednesday. … Leafs backup goaltender Zakery Babin was a healthy scratch.