KIJHL: Spotlight on Leafs defenceman Austin Steger

Steger was a standout during the Leafs' busy weekend.

Austin Steger can expect to take more late-game shots from now on.

The Nelson Leafs defenceman was on fleek with his point shot at critical times during the team’s three-games-in-three-days weekend. Steger earned the Leafs a point by forcing extra time Friday at home against the Castlegar Rebels, tying the game on a goal with 54 seconds left in regulation.

“Just a patiently, perfectly executed play,” said head coach Mario DiBella.

The Leafs went on to lose 5-4 in double-OT, but Steger was back at it the next day. On Saturday, the Leafs were tied with the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in Fruitvale until Steger unloaded again from the point with less than four minutes left to give Nelson the 4-3 win.

Steger, who the Leafs acquired in an off-season trade to bolster their defensive corps, currently leads the team’s blueliners with five points in just five games played.

“He’s definitely a D-man who has been a great acquisition for us,” said DiBella. “In my opinion, given the right breaks he would be a top-four D-man on any Junior A team. We’re fortunate to have him. He provides an element of offence to our backend that we sure didn’t have last year. He’ll be a benefit to us.”

The Leafs might have been forgiven for a loss Saturday at Fruitvale after the Friday marathon. They also lost goaltender Jason Sandhu to a lower-body injury — DiBella said Sandhu will be out a couple weeks — and had to go with rookie backup Ben Kelsch for the remaining games.

But Kelsch was ready, stopping 30 shots for the Nelson native’s first KIJHL win. The Leafs meanwhile came out firing, scoring three goals in the first period and holding on prior to Steger’s late-game heroics. That’s no small result for the Leafs against the team who swept them out of the first round of last season’s playoffs.

“That’s as close as we’ve come this year to playing a 60-minute game,” said DiBella. “They were firing on all cylinders and believing… the early shifts would carry forward for the entire game, and they played the entire game with that same mindset.”

They couldn’t say the same Sunday. Nelson finished the busy schedule with a 7-4 matinee loss in Grand Forks. The Border Bruins exploded for five goals in the third period, two of which went into an empty net to crush the Leafs’ hope for a comeback.

Several players are banged up on the team, but DiBella dismissed injuries and the schedule as excuses for the poor period.

“Honestly I wasn’t pleased with the effort. I was less pleased with the fact that we went away from our game plan and some players decided to do their own thing rather than buy into what it was we set out for, our objectives for [the Border Bruins].”

Yet plenty of positives remain after the weekend.

It’s still early in the schedule, but the Leafs already have two players in the top-10 of the league’s scoring leaders. Sawyer Hunt is currently fourth overall with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) while Dale Howell is seventh with 11 points (four goals, seven assists).

Hunt and Howell were in the middle of the team’s weekend offence, each finishing the three games with seven points. Howell has earned at least one point in his last six games.

Rookie Ryan Piva, one of two 16-year-olds who made the team out of training camp, has also been a surprise. Piva scored a goal apiece in each game of the weekend set, and currently tied with veterans Kolten Nelson and Sam Weber for third in team scoring with six points.

Leaflets: Nelson next plays Friday at home against Beaver Valley. … The Leafs traded F Cleary Ambrose to the VIJHL’s Comox Valley Glacier Kings for future considerations. Ambrose, a San Diego native, was signed by the Leafs last season but scored just one goal and one assist in 13 games.

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