By Bob Hall
The Nelson Leafs found a cure for a mid-season stumble on Saturday night at the Nelson and District Recreation Centre with a 4-1 win over the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
The Leafs came into the game still smarting from a 9-3 thrashing at the hands of the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Friday night in Fruitvale, the team’s third loss in a row. Getting back on track on Saturday night was vital and the result keeps the Leafs atop the Neil Murdoch Division standings.
“It’s huge for us,” Leafs goaltender Josh Williams said after the Saturday win. “It was important to get back at it right away so we can see what can happen when we play our game. It worked out well tonight.”
The Leafs opened the scoring four minutes into the game when Jackson Zimmermann beat Grand Forks starter Quinn Yeager to make it 1-0. A feisty first period ended with the Leafs killing penalties for most of the last six minutes and Williams standing tall in the home side’s goal.
Just over five minutes into the second period, Leafs forward Ryan Piva picked up a loose puck and made the score 2-0. Grand Forks pushed back and two minutes later defenceman Logan Klatt’s shot from the point managed to find its way through traffic beating Williams and cutting the lead in half.
After sitting in the penalty box watching his team kill a two-minute hooking call, Zimmermann hopped back on the ice with nine minutes remaining in the middle frame and scored on a long shot that Yeager misread to make it 3-1 for Nelson. At that point in the game, the Border Bruins held a 22-15 advantage in shots.
“Even when we were under pressure, most of the shots were coming from the outside,” said Williams, who ended up stopping 30 shots in the game to pick up his 13th win of the season. “The guys were cleaning their forwards out of the way so I could see everything. It was awesome.”
The Leafs faced further adversity late in the period when defenceman Michael LeNoury hit Border Bruins forward Brair Whyte in an exchange that would send the latter to the hospital via ambulance. LeNoury received a five-minute major for a hit to the head and a game ejection. Williams again came up big to preserve the lead and help pace his team to victory. Brendan Makay scored on the powerplay in the third to add insurance.
“Josh is the best goaltender in this league, bar-none,” Leafs coach Mario DiBella said after the game. “Josh does more than stop pucks, he has a great ability to move the puck, he always makes sure that dump-ins are handled and making those small plays that make a defencemen’s job a lot easier.”
Though the Leafs snapped a three-game losing streak with the victory, DiBella was not ready to let his troops off the hook for two tough losses to Castlegar and a thumping by Beaver Valley.
“It’s an issue of heading into Christmas break a little early and not understanding what it takes to consistently win in this league,” DiBella said of the stumble. “We were fortunate enough earlier the season to get a number of wins and go on a winning streak. Sometimes that can be a good thing and sometimes it can be a bad thing. When you play top teams like Castlegar and Beaver Valley, you have to show up. If choose to not put in the effort and not play to the level of intensity that those two teams deliver, you are going to be on wrong side of the score.”
Intensity will be vital for the remainder of the month if the Leafs hope to hold off the red-hot Castlegar Rebels who have won eight in a row. Four out of the five remaining games this month are against division opponents including a much-anticipated tilt with the Rebels this coming Saturday night at the NDCC. The Leafs will travel to Sparwood on Friday night to take on the Fernie Ghostriders.