Jack Karran is ready to make some memories.
The Leafs captain, playing his last junior year, hit the ice Tuesday with a buzzed mohawk. The whole team wanted to start the playoffs with a fresh cut, but Karran and a couple other Leafs decided to take the look one step further with a flash of permanently dyed neon green.
“I’m crazy, I know,” he said. “I like it.”
His hair wasn’t the only part of Karran’s night worth remembering.
Karran tied the game with a goal in the third period then scored the winner just 22 seconds into overtime as Nelson rallied to defeat the Spokane Braves 3-2 in Game 1 of the Neil Murdoch Division semifinals.
The play started when Cole Wyatt put a shot onto the side of the Braves’ net. Wyatt continued skating around the back of the net, which fooled Spokane goaltender Campbell Arnold into thinking the Leaf still had the puck. Instead, the puck had stayed put where Wyatt left it, and Karran pounced with the tap-in.
“It was just a gigantic effort,” said Leafs coach Mario DiBella. “What do you say about a captain who leads as the best defensive player on the ice, nine nights out of 10 he’s the best offensive player on the ice, he just leaves every bit of effort in his performance. He’s just colossal.”
Reid Wilson also scored for the Leafs, while Caiden Kreitz stopped 24 shots in net. Bear Hughes meanwhile scored twice for the Braves, who had a 22-save performance from Arnold.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Nelson.
The Leafs opened the game looking less than ready for the playoffs. Spokane pinned the team in its zone and limited the Leafs to just one shot through the first eight minutes. Nelson appeared to be looking for a breakout pass throughout the first period, but more often than naught play went back on icing calls.
But Nelson woke up in the back half of the period, outshooting Spokane 9-1 over a three-minute span and testing Arnold with several close chances.
“I think the boys were a little nervous in the first period, but I think we battled through,” said defenceman Kaleb Comishin. “They had a good goalie in net tonight. … We’re going to have to take a lot more shots on him in the next games coming up.”
A physical second period left three Braves on the ice. The worst of those was a clean but hard hit by Shawn Campbell to Spokane defenceman Cody Wilson that required a trainer’s exam.
The Leafs finally broke through on a power play. Emery Neilson slid a pass across the crease to Reid Wilson, who tapped it in to finally beat the Braves’ talented rookie goaltender.
But Spokane’s regular season leading scorer got his team back into the game three minutes into the third period. Hughes skated around a defender and whipped a wrist shot that beat Kreitz blocker side to tie the game at one.
It was Hughes again two minutes later. Spokane continued to press the Leafs and capitalized when a shot off Kreitz’s pads rebounded to Hughes for his second of the night.
DiBella criticized his team’s uneven play through the first two periods.
“Suddenly we decided the investment we made with being on the body, the investment we made with getting pucks on net wasn’t something we needed to do to win.”
The Leafs prematurely celebrated a goal at 12:02. A player appeared to pop the puck off the top of the net before play could be called dead. The puck cross the goal-line, but an official waved it off.
Hard work by Karran got that goal back for the Leafs. He dished to it Comishin at the blue-line, then skated around the net and was well placed for the dirty rebound goal that put a much-needed shot of energy into the home crowd.
Neilson then found a wide-open Wilson on a rush for a possible go-ahead goal, but Wilson’s shot went just wide of Arnold’s pad. The game stayed level to the end of regulation, but not much further past that.
“I knew they were going to come out hard,” said Karran. “It’s going to be a tough series, you can’t take them lightly. I think the guys in the beginning of the game had some nerves, but I think we got past it.”
Leaflets: Prior to the game, DiBella was honoured with as the Neil Murdoch Division’s Coach of the Year. The award is voted on by the division’s coaches and general managers. Kreitz was also named the division’s top regular season goaltender, as well as the best goalie in the KIJHL. … Nelson was missing F Tyler Nypower (upper body). D Michael LeNoury left the game in the third period after suffering what appeared to be a hand injury.