A high-intensity game between two rivals with plenty of goals, a packed arena and overtime hockey.
No, it wasn’t a playoff game, but Saturday’s meeting between the Nelson Leafs and Castlegar Rebels sure felt like one.
“One hundred per cent playoff game,” said Leafs defenceman Brendan Makay. “Got the crowd in there, intensity was up, lots of physicality, lots of fun.”
The Leafs and Rebels scrapped their way to a 4-4 tie in front of a loud crowd of 842 fans at the Nelson and District Community Complex. It was only the Leafs’ second tie of the season, but it was hard to be disappointed by the stalemate when the hockey was so entertaining.
A goal by Ryan Piva with three minutes left in regulation appeared to give Nelson the win, but Castlegar pulled its goalie and John Moeller scored with a minute remaining to force extra time.
Then, at the end of a breathless double overtime, Leafs goaltender Josh Williams made not one but two incredible breakaway saves on Rebels star Ed Lindsey, and in the dying seconds Zach Morey blocked two shots to preserve the tie.
So it wasn’t a win, a loss, or even playoff hockey. But it served as a tantalizing preview if both teams advance to the second round.
“We get motivated every time we play Castlegar,” said Leafs coach Mario DiBella. “Philosophically we come from different ends of the spectrum and we just feel that we need bring our best game when we play them, and for the most part we have this year. Certainly today, with a depleted lineup, I thought we were full value for the tie.”
Williams finished with 48 saves, while Logan Wullum, Nicholas Wihak and Makay also scored Leafs (33-8-4), who had their six-game winning streak snapped.
Moeller finished with two goals, while Lindsey and Jesse Belley also scored for the Rebels (29-12-4) and Curt Doyle made 37 stops in net.
The tie came one night after a 3-2 win over Grand Forks that secured first place for Nelson in the Neil Murdoch Division. The Leafs open playoffs on home ice Feb. 23 against either the Border Bruins or the Spokane Braves.
But it was as if playoffs began early Saturday night.
Lindsey, who entered the game fourth overall in league scoring, did what he does best six minutes into regulation. The Leafs had defenceman Michael LeNoury in the box for interference when Lindsey deflected a shot over Williams’ glove for the early lead.
But the Leafs answered back just three minutes later. Wullum snapped a shot that Doyle was too slow to react to and the score was tied at one.
Castlegar regained its one-goal advantage with seven minutes left in the first period. Moeller snagged the puck near the Leafs’ blueline, skated in and whipped a shot that beat Williams blocker side.
Both teams kept trading punches — metaphorical and literal — in the second period.
Wihak tied the game once again on a nice shot that Doyle couldn’t stop stick side at 16:22, but 10 minutes later Belley deflected a sharp-angle shot that Williams had no chance on to regain the Rebels’ lead.
Leafs captain Sawyer Hunt and Rebels defender Andrew Petten went to the ice throwing haymakers shortly after, which riled up the crowd but also lost Nelson its most productive player. Before he was sent off, Hunt’s two assists stretched his points streak to 14 consecutive games.
“He’s our leader and he handled himself remarkably well for a player who’s not known as a fighter,” said DiBella. “I think that gave us a little bit of momentum boost.”
Wullum nearly had his second of the game with a minute left in the period. He took a pass in the slot and circled around only to be denied point blank by Doyle.
Nelson again opened a period with a tying goal after the break. Makay fired a blistering slapshot from the point just over two minutes after the puck drop that fired up the big crowd.
“Just a ton of time and I tried to hit it as hard as I could,” said Makay. “I’m not much of a sniper so I can’t pick corners.”
Fans were roaring again after a spectacular save by Williams. With Castlegar on the power play, Williams was sitting on the ice when he lifted his glove just in time to deny what looked like a sure goal.
Then Nelson went ahead for the first time in the game with 3:26 left in the game. Morey’s shot from the point deflected high and dropped right in front of Piva, who fired in the slot to give Nelson a 4-3 lead.
“I didn’t even know it went in. I just saw the bottle fly,” quipped Piva.
But Castlegar pulled Doyle and the last-ditch effort paid off with just over a minute left. With a crowd of players in front of net, Williams couldn’t see Moeller’s shot from the blueline for a goal that sent the game to overtime.
Leaflets: Nelson was missing F Jack Karran (lower body), F Ryan Cooper (rest) and D Michael Bladon, who was called up to the BCHL play for the West Kelowna Warriors. He’s expected to rejoin the Leafs prior to next weekend. … Nelson finishes the regular season on the road next weekend. The Leafs visit Castlegar on Friday before facing the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Saturday.