Ryan Cooper had all the time he needed.
The Nelson Leafs forward controlled the puck during a 5-on-3, so he knew he wasn’t going to be challenged right away. The plan was to pass, but then the slightest opening appeared between the post and the opposing goaltender.
“I was waiting for [Michael Lenoury] to slide back door, but I just saw the opening and it went in,” said Cooper after he scored the overtime winner for the Leafs in a 3-2 decision against the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
Josh Williams made 20 saves and Brent Headon and Nicholas Wihak also scored for Nelson, which opened the playoffs Friday against a Border Bruins team determined to get under the Leafs’ skin.
Grand Forks’ strategy appeared to be strictly agitation, which on the ice meant taking several runs at Williams and drawing the Leafs into making poor choices. And for most of the game it worked.
Rilee Poffenroth and Dalton Luce scored, while Quinn Yeager had 28 saves for the underdog Border Bruins who nearly stole Game 1 on the road.
Headon said he expected the Border Bruins would play the type of game they did.
“They’re not going to have more I would think,” he said. “But we definitely need to bring more, we didn’t bring enough to the table I think.”
The Leafs were missing three key players — Sawyer Hunt, Dash Thompson and Zach Morey — but they weren’t lacking for pressure on visitors in the first period of the post-season. On one penalty kill Nelson had so much possession in the neutral zone it looked like they were playing 5-on-5.
Nelson had plenty of good looks at Yeager in close but couldn’t connect. Still, the team went to the locker-room having won the energy battle with solid forechecking by Justin Podgorenko and Brendan Makay.
After the break an ugly giveaway helped Grand Forks draw first blood. Williams was behind his net when chipped the puck out right to Poffenroth, who had nothing but net to give the visitors a surprising lead.
The goal shook the Leafs. They suddenly struggled to get out of their zone, a problem that was made worse by a four-minute penalty by Wihak although Nelson emerged unscathed. They were also consistently rattled by Border Bruins forward Zane Avery, who spent most of the game in Williams’ crease and visibly agitated the Leafs.
Leafs coach Mario DiBella acknowledged the goal impacted his players.
“I didn’t think we played our best game to be quite honest,” said DiBella. “I think we have some room for improvement there. We tell the players it’s an opportunity for others to step up and play a larger role. For the most part the guys that I can rely on to do that did exactly that, and some players decided that that talk didn’t include them.”
The Leafs looked dead on the ice until a blistering slapshot by Headon revived the team. Nelson regained possession and Headon, a natural forward, wound up from the point. His shot beat Yeager top corner and suddenly it was a game again.
“There’s no other expression to say other than Brent is the heart and soul of this team,” said DiBella. “He gives me his best effort every time he’s on the ice, he scored a great goal, he was physical.”
Nelson took control less than three minutes into the third period. With the Leafs on the power play, Wihak unleashed a wicked shot that beat Yeager and gave Nelson its first lead of the game.
Avery once again put himself in the spotlight shortly after. He got tangled up with Williams then threw the Leafs’ goaltender to the ice, but escaped with no roughing call and only went to the box on a coincidental with Lenoury.
Headon said it would be important going forward for the Leafs to ignore Avery.
“Don’t let him get in your head,” said Headon. “He’s yappy. He doesn’t do anything else out there besides yap.”
The hit might have rattled Williams. Moments later he was left standing as Luce zipped into the Leafs’ zone and whipped a wristshot that tied the game at two.
From there, it was on to overtime and, the Leafs hope, a long playoff run to follow.
Leaflets: Before the game, Leafs F Ryan Cooper was named the top rookie of the Neil Murdoch Division, while Williams was handed the top goaltender award. … Fridays’ game was played exactly one year after Nelson beat the Castlegar Rebels in a game that went four overtimes. … The Leafs host Game 2 on Saturday.