Brandon Costa thought his hockey career might have been over. Now he’s playing like he’s running out of time.
Before the season even began, Costa’s team in the Maritime Junior Hockey League was relocated. He asked for a trade to the Drayton Valley Thunder in Alberta, but suffered two concussions there in exhibition games.
The side effects of the head injuries lasted four months, and he was only cleared to play shortly before the KIJHL’s trade deadline on Jan. 10 when he signed with the Nelson Leafs.
“I just started and I wish it was the start of the season. I want to play a full regular season with the group,” said Costa, who already has five goals and three assists in just seven games with the Leafs.
“Now I’ve got two games left, then the playoffs and it’s like every game counts. It could end up being another couple months of hockey, which should happen, but I wish I was here for the full season for sure.”
Costa’s brilliant goal Saturday helped lead Nelson to a crucial 3-1 win over the Beaver Valley Nitehawks.
The win was Nelson’s eighth straight, and moved the team into first place atop the Neil Murdoch Division. But that position is tenuous — the Leafs play the Nitehawks two more times before the regular season ends, are ahead in the standings by just one point and Beaver Valley has a game in hand.
The race to the playoffs is on, and Nelson looked hungry for the division title when the puck dropped.
“I felt the players were prepared and they gave us a great effort,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “I was really pleased with how we came out of the dressing room. I thought we played a 60-minute game today.”
Bryden Pow and Reid Wilson also scored for the Leafs (29-12-6), while Anderson Violette stopped 23 shots.
Brock Wallace had goals for the Nitehawks (28-11-7), with Hunter Young making 29 saves.
Pow gave Nelson the first goal of the game on a play that probably won’t make any highlight reels. He was open in the slot for a pass from David Sanchez only to whiff on the shot. The puck crept into the goal regardless after Young committed to his move too early and couldn’t slide back to make what should have been an easy save.
Less than five minutes later the Leafs were on a power play when Wilson gave the team a 2-0 lead. He spun around a defender and sniped the top corner for his 30th goal of the year and 74th point of the season. Wilson is second overall in KIJHL scoring behind Kimberley’s Brock Palmer, who leads with 91.
Aiden Jenner, who was also signed at the deadline and scored twice in his debut Friday, said he thought the Leafs’ forecheck rattled the Nitehawks.
“I feel like us coming at them really hard just shook them up a bit, and they didn’t know how to respond to that.”
Jenner’s path to the Leafs is similar to Costa’s.
A former Nitehawk, Jenner spent last season with the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks. In the off-season he decided to leave hockey and pursue engineering at Selkirk College was playing in a beer league.
The Leafs drew him back in just before the deadline, and Jenner also committed to playing for the Selkirk Saints. But in his first game with the Saints, Jenner fractured the fibula in his left leg. That delayed his Leafs debut to Friday, and one night later he was playing against his former KIJHL team.
That didn’t seem to bother Jenner — he’s just happy to be here.
“I’m just going out there and playing for fun, honestly,” he said. “I don’t really think about it too much. It’s weird for sure, seeing a team you played for, playing against them. But that doesn’t really bother me too much.”
For his part, DiBella was excited to have the two players he signed finally on the ice.
“They’re both high quality players and they’re good people as well. It’s just a pleasure to have both of them wearing the green and white.”
The Nitehawks were caught napping in the second period. Alek Erichuk had the puck in the neutral zone when he found Costa, who was waiting unmarked at the visitor’s blue-line. Costa skated in alone and undressed Young with a nasty deke for Nelson’s third goal.
Costa said he’d been practising the complicated move, which involves six forehand and backhand feints, earlier this week in practise, but hadn’t scored with it because his teammates in net were too patient.
“But in a game the goalies bites way harder,” he said. “I pulled to backhand, went to forehand, he bites, backhand’s open all day long. I got kind of lucky there because I was going backhand, so if he didn’t bite he would have had me.”
Wallace finally the Nitehawks their first goal, although no one would have known by looking at the scoreboard. The scoreboard started flickering on one end of the ice, and both sides went out entirely just as Wallace’s shot beat Violette.
The scoreboard lights returned a short time later, disappointing the abacus users in the stands.
Midway through the third Beaver Valley’s Marty Ingram took down Nelson defenceman Ryan Quinn Nielsen-Webb at centre ice. He was called for interference then summarily tossed from the game after getting into it with one of the officials.
That ended up being the only moment of note in a perfunctory final frame. Nelson left the ice with the division lead, and Beaver Valley went home knowing it has three more games to have the last laugh.
Their next game is Feb. 20 in Fruitvale, and the season ends Feb. 22 in Nelson.