Only a couple centimetres more and Jaiden LaPorte never would have reached the puck.
The Leafs were on the penalty kill in the first period when Jack Karran passed the puck to LaPorte, who started skating hard into the neutral zone. But LaPorte’s chip to himself was a little too heavy, and the play became a race between LaPorte, the puck and the chasing defenceman.
At the last second the Nelson forward got the tip of his blade on the puck just enough to poke it past the Grand Forks goaltender.
“I guess the puck was a little ahead of me, I couldn’t really make a move,” said LaPorte. “I just poked it and got a lucky one.”
Ryan Cooper and Michael Bladon also scored as the Leafs beat the Border Bruins 3-2 to take a 2-0 series lead Saturday night. Josh Williams stopped 17 shots for Nelson, which now heads to Grand Forks for Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday.
Riley Smoler and Rilee Poffenroth replied for Grand Forks, while Quinn Yeager stopped 20 shots.
LaPorte’s short-handed goal six minutes into regulation was a highlight for the Leafs’ penalty-killing unit, which was tasked with plenty of work during a game in which the refs used their whistles liberally.
There were nine penalties in the first period alone — and those were just the hits that were called.
“Both teams are very physical,” said Bladon. “We’ve got some guys who can hit and they’ve got some guys who can match it and it just turns into an all-out warfare out there. Everybody’s gotta keep their head up.”
The Border Bruins appeared to have a goal, for half a second anyway, with six minutes left in the first. Defenceman Rylan Smaha-Muir whipped a shot on a rush that found the Leafs’ net, but that was immediately waved off for goaltender interference.
That call was made moot just a minute later. Smoler took a long pass from Yeager, skated in and beat Williams five-hole to tie the game at one.
The pace slowed in the second period, and Nelson again went ahead at 6:38. Cooper took a pass from Ryan Piva, deked and went top shelf on Yeager for the 2-1 advantage.
The Leafs got into trouble as the period wound down. Nelson had a minute of 5-on-3 to kill off, and that was followed by a double minor to Nicholas Wihak for high sticking. That penalty followed Nelson into the third, but was killed off by the league’s top PK unit.
But they could only do so much, and yet another penalty put the Leafs on the back foot only moments after Wihak was set free. Brent Headon was sent to the box and that opened the door for a point shot from Smaha-Muir that Poffenroth rebounded into the net to tie the game.
Nelson head coach Mario DiBella said his players can’t keep allowing the Border Bruins back into the game.
“The message that has to be loud and clear to this team is that 5-on-5, or when we allow them to be undisciplined and take penalties, we’re the better team,” he said. “Most certainly, when you’re playing half the game shorthanded, you’re putting the fate of the game in the other team’s hands.”
The ping-pong match continued as Bladon fired a point-shot that beat a falling Yeager. That set off a conversation at centre ice between the officials, possibly about goalie interference, but the goal stood and the Leafs’ lead was restored.
Grand Forks took another penalty with just under three minutes to play, which essentially sealed the win for the Leafs. The team will take a day off, presumably to mull over its penalties, and be back in action Monday.
“We were a bit undisciplined but we’ll regroup, fix that and go into Grand Forks and try to get two more wins,” said LaPorte.
Leaflets: If necessary, Nelsons hosts Game 5 on Thursday. … The Leafs were missing F Sawyer Hunt, D Dash Thompson and D Zach Morey. F Logan Wullum dressed but didn’t play. DiBella said he expects to have two of those players back on the ice for the trip to Grand Forks.