The silence said it all.
The door was shut on the Leafs’ locker-room Saturday night for a players only meeting. Nelson had fought back from an early 3-0 deficit against the Creston Valley Thunder Cats only to lose 4-3 in overtime.
The upside was the team got a valuable point. The downside is no one plays 60-plus minutes for just one point.
“That hurts. Especially since it was 10 minutes of the game that cost us,” said Leafs defenceman Brent Headon.
“I know you can look at how we came back and we overcome everything, so…” and here Headon’s voice trailed off.
The game had all the makings of a blowout in the first period. The Thunder Cats established a 3-0 lead before the period was half over, which is usually all a team of their calibre needs to win.
The deficit underlined an inconsistent weekend for Nelson. Just one night earlier the Leafs allowed the league-worst Golden Rockets to push them to overtime before winning 3-2.
That uneven effort followed the team into Saturday’s game. Leafs coach Mario DiBella made it clear what would have happened if Nelson had played as it should have from the opening puck drop.
“The obvious answer is we win 3-0,” he said, “and every player in the room needs to understand it’s their job to come to prepared the rink, it’s their job to understand what their roles are on the ice, it’s their job to compete every time they show up whether they’re playing Golden or Creston or Kimberley.
“Whoever the opponent is. It’s not entitlement. It’s a privilege to play here. They have to come prepared.”
The Leafs replied to the deficit with goals by Andy Fitzpatrick, Nicholas Wihak and Colum McGauley, the latter of whom tied the game with 1:35 left in regulation.
But in overtime, Thomas Cankovic broke away on a turnover and beat Leafs goaltender Billy Gorn five-hole to end the comeback.
Brodie Smith, Julian Benner, Justin James each scored in regulation for the Thunder Cats (26-7-2), while Patrick Ostermann made 31 saves as Creston increased its winning streak to six games.
Nelson forward Dale Howell recorded three assists while Gorn, meanwhile, stopped 26 shots for the Leafs (16-16-4).
Cankovic’s goal soured an unreal stop by Gorn earlier in overtime. The Thunder Cats had beat him three times on quick passes in the slot in the first, but this time Gorn was ready. He made his move a half-second early and denied a Creston shooter with his glove.
The rivalry between Nelson and Creston Valley had been nasty in their two previous meetings, which the teams split albeit with numerous fights, suspensions and even injuries.
Sam Weber, an assistant captain in his third season with the Leafs, said the players’ meeting was held to establish what went wrong without letting the result damage morale.
“Everyone’s just keeping their heads high,” he said. “A team like that, coming back from three goals, we know where we went wrong. But at the same time, there’s a lot of character in that room. Really showed coming back like that.”
When the game began, it took the Thunder Cats just a minute and a half to strike. Paxton Malone looked to shoot but fooled Gorn with a perfect pass to Smith in the slot for a quick tap-in.
The Leafs pressed with a solid power play but moments after it ended Creston scored again on a similar play to the first goal. Ronnie Wilkie went in on Gorn but elected to pass instead of shoot to a rushing Benner, who had a wide-open net for a 2-0 lead on the Thunder Cats’ third shot of the game.
The same spot burned Gorn yet again before the game was 10 minutes old. James skated in uncontested and took a pass from Aiden Wong. Gorn tried to slide over but he was beat yet again as Creston went up by three.
Leafs forward Fitzpatrick responded by throwing a cross check after the goal, James was sent off for roughing and Gorn fired the puck into the boards in disgust.
Creston Valley’s goals were good ones, but Weber said his team was at fault for allowing the opportunities in the first place.
“I think it was little things,” said Weber. “I mean, just being a little bit more aware of where your guys are on the ice and just keeping your head up a little bit more. They’re a good team, they can expose you like that and they did that. But I think there’s always something you can do to prevent goals like that.”
Fitzpatrick put Nelson on the scoreboard with 52 seconds left in the first. The Leafs had just gone on the power play when Fitzpatrick ignited a rocket one-timer that Ostermann had no chance on.
Nelson came out firing after the break. The Leafs outshot the Thunder Cats 15-4 and it paid off with 1:52 remaining. Howell’s point shot during a power play found the stick of Wihak and deflected past Ostermann to cut Creston’s lead to one.
Logan Wullum nearly tied it with seconds left, spinning in front of Ostermann with the puck and missing the net by inches.
Creston returned to form in the third. The visitors pinned Nelson down and poured it on with a 15-5 shot advantage. The Thunder Cats’ best chance came on a fast break that saw Gorn stand down a shot by Cankovic.
Gorn has another beauty of a save with three minutes left in regulation. He slid to the far post and handled a shot that bounced between his pads and out.
Gorn was looking to the bench to be pulled as time wound down, but McGauley’s heroics made sure he stayed in net. The Leafs rookie went backhand on Ostermann and found the top corner to tie the game and jolt a crowd preparing for a loss.
That sent the Leafs into overtime, a feat that had seemed nearly impossible heading into the first intermission.
Headon said it was no secret what the team needed to do in the next game.
“We prepare a little better before the game, come out flying in the first period and we follow up with how we ended this game.”
Leaflets: Nelson has a short turnaround to its next game. The Leafs host the Kimberley Dynamiters on Wednesday. They then take on the Spokane Braves on Sunday at 2 p.m.