Setting the tone early is a common theme in sport and a proven factor in outcome. The result from a three-game weekend for the Nelson Junior Leafs is yet another study in the theory.
Heading into the weekend, the locals were hoping to propel themselves up the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League standings with six points.
The mission was only partially accomplished with a pair of wins, but the most important lesson may have been learned in Friday night’s 6-4 loss to the North Okanagan Knights at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
“We had a good start in the first five minutes, but they got momentum when they scored on a powerplay,” said Leafs head coach Frank Maida. “We just didn’t recover and had to play catch-up the whole game.”
With captain Colton Schell in the penalty box for roughing four minutes into the game, the visitors pounced. Twenty-three seconds into the man advantage, Matty Saharchuk beat Leafs starter Cody Boeckman to make the score 1-0.
Twenty seconds after that, the opening period hole became a little deeper when Steven Pantazopoulous made it 2-0. With seven seconds left in the first 20 minutes of play, Tanner Burns scored a dreaded late period goal to make it 3-0 for the Knights.
The task of coming back then became daunting.
“When you start taking the game into your hands and want to help by trying too hard,” Maida explained about the difficulty of coming back. “It’s human nature that you want to do that, but what happens is you get out of the game plan.”
The Leafs did respond early in the second period when Bryce Nielsen scored on the powerplay three minutes in. Owen Barker restored the three-goal lead five minutes later.
With seven minutes left to play in the middle frame, Schell beat North Okanagan starter Dustin Nikkel to make it 4-2. Derek Andrews and Schell then traded goals late in the period to send the teams in the dressing room 5-3.
The Leafs controlled the third period, outshooting the Knights 11-3 but only Matthew Naka could solve Nikkel and the game ended 6-4.
“We carried the play in the third period,” said Maida. “Their goaltender made some key saves at some key times. He is a top goalie in the league and we just couldn’t bury our chances.”
Not wanting a repeat of the night before, on Saturday night the Leafs got off to a quick start against the lowly Grand Forks Border Bruins at the NDCC.
Matti Jmaeff scored five minutes in and Seth Schmidt added another four minutes later to give the home side a 2-0 lead. But the Border Bruins forged their way back, scoring two on Leafs starter Brett Soles to tie the score after the first period.
“We had to remind the guys of how we got off the game plan on Friday and lost focus,” Maida said of his between-period talk.
“The results in the second period showed that they responded.”
The Leafs dominated the middle frame, throwing 23 shots at the Grand Forks net. Rookie Colton McCarthy, Cam Weir and Nielsen were successful in finding the twine to increase the lead to 5-2 after 40 minutes.
The Leafs sealed the game in the third period with Jacob Boyczuk and Schell scoring to make it 7-2.
On Sunday the Leafs traveled to the Eagles Ice-A-Rena in Spokane to take on the Braves and expanded on the early-lead lessons learned Friday night.
Nielsen opened the scoring seven minutes into the game to give the visiting Nelson squad a 1-0 lead. Two minutes later Justin Loepker tied the score when he beat Nelson starter Boeckman.
With just over 10 minutes gone in the opening period, Leafs defenceman Blake Arcuri scored his first goal of the season to restore the Nelson lead. One minute after that, Naka continued his hot streak with a marker to increase the margin to 3-1.
Despite several chances for both sides in the middle frame, the score remained 3-1 after two periods.
In the third period the Braves pushed to get back into the contest, but it was the Leafs who scored the only goal of the stanza with Linden Horswill notching a shorthanded marker to add the insurance.
The Leafs were back in action Tuesday night in Beaver Valley (past Star deadline) and will travel to Grand Forks on Thursday night for a rematch with the Border Bruins.