Everyone in the arena knew the goal was offside. Everyone, that is, except for the only people carrying whistles.
When Spokane’s Nate Wilson returned the puck to the Nelson Leafs zone in the third period of Game 5 on Monday night, the obvious offside call was never made.
Instead, Wilson passed to his teammate Bear Hughes, who went ahead and scored on Caiden Kreitz.
The Leafs goaltender looked as though he thought the play was about to be called dead. But the goal, an eventual game winner, counted, and after a 4-1 loss the Leafs are now one game away from a stunning post-season elimination.
Officiating crews rarely speak to media after games. The four-man crew working Monday’s game also declined to comment on the Hughes goal.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake in the moment, because you’re in the heat of the moment. But then the young linesman was asked if he was absolutely certain. It was a foot offside,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella.
“But that’s just one goal. The other two were a lack of effort. The guys in the blue jerseys worked a whole hell of a lot harder than the white jerseys.”
Reid Wilson scored and Kreitz finished with 24 saves for the Leafs, who now must win Game 6 in Spokane on Tuesday to stave off elimination. If they do, they return to Nelson for Game 7 on Wednesday.
Nate Wilson, Jed Butler and Kade Levins also scored for the Braves, while Ben Waslaski made his series debut in net with 28 saves.
The Leafs looked good early on. Perhaps buoyed by the Braves sitting out their star goaltender Campbell Arnold, Nelson pushed hard in the first period without success.
But Spokane went ahead on just its second shot of the game. Leafs defenceman Alex Erichuk was serving a hooking penalty when Nate Wilson was left alone for a close one-timer to give the Braves a 1-0 lead.
“Just not a good overall effort really,” said Leafs captain Jack Karran. “First period we come out fine. Then we just lay back and watched them work us and run us into the ground.”
Leafs forwards played whack-a-mole down low several times throughout the period on Waslaski only to be denied again and again.
But Nelson broke through halfway through the second period. Reid Wilson had a teammate with him on a 2-on-1 but opted to shoot. It was a good choice, as Wilson found space over Waslaski’s right shoulder to tie the game.
Spokane once again took the lead five minutes into the third period on the controversial non-call that Hughes took advantage of.
The goal incensed the Leafs as well as the crowd. A short time later the refs waited a few seconds too long to call another delayed offside, and the crowd replied with sarcastic applause.
Karran said the missed call was less to blame than poor play by his team.
“It was offside but we can’t be making soft plays at the wall,” said Karran. It doesn’t matter if it is offside or not.”
A penalty with five minutes left in regulation might have given the Leafs a late chance to come back. Instead, Butler scored short-handed for the Braves, and soon after Levins added an empty-net goal.
“I think it falls totally on us as coaches and the players in the room,” said DiBella. “We can’t have Jack Karran and Caiden Kreitz going and the rest just waiting someone else to carry the heavy load and get the puck to them.”
Thirty points separated the first-place Leafs and Spokane in the standings at the end of the regular season. Now, just five games into the first round of the playoffs, the upstart Braves are on the cusp of a major upset.
Karran pointed to a similar situation last season when the Leafs blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Grand Forks only to rally for a Game 7 win.
“Everyone just has to have the mindset that it’s not over. …,” he said. “It’ll be fine. I’m looking forward to it tomorrow.”
Leaflets: Nelson was without F Joshua Stypka (upper body) and D Michael LeNoury (upper body). The Leafs called up affiliate player D Reid Vulcano.