Six Nelson Leafs stood in suits next to the ice as time ticked away on the scoreboard.
They banged in unison on the glass, they chirped the opposition and cheered for their teammates. But mostly, they looked helpless.
Michael LeNoury was one of the many Leafs sidelined, either by suspension or injury, during what turned out to be Nelson’s final game of a mostly triumphant season.
He was watching as a short-handed team gutted out one last performance that very nearly pushed the series against the Kimberley Dynamiters to a seventh game.
And he was there when, in double overtime, the Leafs fell.
“Everybody wanted it so bad,” said LeNoury as he brushed aside tears. “Figured if we got to Game 7, you never know. Everybody tried their best, it just wasn’t meant to be I guess.”
Nelson was eliminated in Game 6 of the Kootenay Conference final when Kimberley’s Cooper Page banged in a goal that gave the Dynamiters a 2-1 win and 4-2 series victory.
“It’s tough. Guys battled so hard,” said LeNoury. “Just one bounce. I don’t know.”
It was remarkable that the Leafs even made it to double-OT.
LeNoury, fellow defenceman Dash Thompson, forwards Logan Wullum, Jackson Zimmermann, Ethan Beattie and star goaltender Josh Williams were all out of action, leaving a hobbled Leafs’ roster to try to survive against the best team in the KIJHL.
Yet they nearly did it anyway in a gutsy performance that served as a melancholic, but courageous end to the playoffs.
“How could you not be proud?” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “With the number of injuries that we sustained, the suspensions that whether you’re in the official’s court or not, it was what it was.
“At times we were down to just over two lines on that bench and the effort that they gave us was Herculean. It was over the top. As a coaching staff we just couldn’t be prouder of what they gave us.”
What they gave the coaches, and the community, was Nelson’s best season of hockey in over a decade.
The team captured its first Neil Murdoch Division title in four years, and eliminated the Grand Forks Border Bruins and Castlegar Rebels to advance to its first conference final in eight years.
Sawyer Hunt, who will be too old to return next season, opted to look at the positives after Friday’s loss.
“I’ve been in the league for four years now and it’s been such a great ride,” said the Nelson native, who has committed to the University of Victoria in the fall.
“Two years in Kimberley, two years here and having the privilege of being captain, it was just a great experience and I’m glad I was able to do it. I’m just looking forward to my future.”
Nelson looked like it might get blown out after it went down 1-0 in the first period.
Bryce MacDonald gave Kimberley the early lead 10 minutes into regulation. He caught Caiden Kreitz off-guard after skating around the net and backhanding a shot that the Leafs’ goaltender was too slow to react to.
Nelson had trouble responding, much less getting a shot on net. The Leafs were often forced to play dump and chase, and had to rely on power plays to get any sustained time in the Dynamiters’ zone.
After 20 minutes, Nelson was lucky to only be down one goal at the intermission.
The Leafs didn’t register a shot for the first eight minutes of the second period, but Hunt’s heroics made sure that mattered little.
It came during a rare Nelson rush in which Ryan Piva elected to pass to his captain and Hunt finished with a top-corner goal that tied the game at one.
That marker seemed to lift the Leafs.
“I thought we had a stronger push after that happened,” said Jack Karran. “We kind of dominated the third and in OT even. They got a kind of lucky one there. Tough way to end it.”
Piva was a post away from giving Nelson the lead a few minutes later. The Leafs were on the power play when Piva had an open look at the Kimberley net but his shot hit the post instead.
Still, the Leafs continued to press. When the period ended, a Nelson team that had been thoroughly outplayed somehow had a chance to keep its season alive.
The Leafs returned to the ice looking like a team on the edge of elimination. Ryan Cooper came close twice to a goal-ahead goal, as did Karran, but couldn’t beat Campbell.
Kreitz, who finished with 30 saves, did his part with several big stops, and when Karran went to the penalty box for obstruction the Leafs’ penalty kill held off the Dynamiters to keep their hopes intact. One more Nelson PK and it was all to play for in overtime.
A number of Nelson chances in the Kimberley crease ended up in a Leafs penalty shot with 6.9 seconds left in OT when a Dynamiter who wasn’t the goalie covered the puck.
Piva very slowly skated in on Cody Campbell and fired a shot that the Kimberley netminder got just enough of a piece to deflect off the post and keep the game going. DiBella said after he thought he gave Piva the wrong direction on where to shoot.
“I wanted to make sure that Piva understood he’s a great player, and it’s just a matter of centimetres and that puck was in.”
When Page scored, the Leafs dutifully filed onto the ice and waited out the Dynamiters’ banner presentation. It had been a good season, the finest in years, and for Hunt there was little shame in how it ended.
“It wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but we still did well and made a bunch of friends this year,” said Hunt. “I mean, that’s all you can really ask for.”