This weekend provided a preview of the first round of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League playoffs for the Nelson Junior Leafs and the Castlegar Rebels. And after splitting a home-and-home, all indications are pointing towards a classic battle.
With the Leafs destined for third place in the Neil Murdoch Division and the Rebels sitting comfortably in second, as time runs out on the regular season the match-up is almost inevitable.
“They are obviously a rival in our division and we are going to see them in the playoffs… so it was important to send a message tonight,” said Leafs forward Max Mois after the Leafs earned an emotional 6-2 victory at the Nelson and District Community Complex on Friday night.
Heading into Friday’s game the two teams were all square in the season series with each club taking two games.
Before one of the biggest home crowds of the season, the Leafs came out hopping in the first period and their hard work paid off midway through the opening frame. Mois gave the home side the lead just over nine minutes into the game when he beat Rebels’ starter Jordan Gluck. Fifteen seconds later Colton Malmsten put the Leafs up 2-0.
Thirty second into the second period, Leafs defenceman Jonathan Petrash took a roughing penalty and the Rebels capitalized. After more than a minute of sustained pressure Anthony Delong pushed a rebound past Leafs’ starter Andrew Walton to cut the lead to 2-1.
That only seemed to inspire the Leafs.
Brett Norman responded a minute later and at the midway point of the second frame to regain the two-goal cushion. Then midway through the second, Mois — who was celebrating his birthday on Friday — scored the goal of the night when he took a Norman pass on a two-on-one, cut to the net and threw a backhand shelf.
“I thought I had him forehand, but I was trying to be a little more creative and went to the backhand instead,” Mois said when asked to describe the goal.
With just over two minutes left in the second period Colton Schell made the score 5-1 when he decided to shoot on a two-on-one opportunity.
The third period was a rough and tumble affair with the teams trading goals — Patrick Martens for Nelson and Scott Morisseau for the Rebels — to make the final 6-2.
“A victory like this could turn our whole season around,” said Schell told the Star after the game. “We just played really well as a team.”
On Saturday night the scene switched to the Castlegar Complex where the Leafs seemed to pick up where they left off. The Leafs fired 17 shots on Rebels’ starter Connor Beauchamp, compared to 11 shots by Castlegar on Nelson’s Patrick Defoe. Despite the effort, the game remained tied at zeroes after 40 minutes.
In the third period, the Rebels came out hot and it paid off when Stuart Walton beat Defoe less than 30 seconds into the period. Three minutes later Anthony Delong capitalized on the powerplay to make the score 2-0 and three minutes after that Walton also scored on the powerplay.
Leafs forward Dallon Stoddart cut into the lead with just under 12 minutes left, but that was as close as the Leafs would come. Arthur Andrews added a goal with seven minutes remaining to make the final 4-1.
The Leafs outshot the Rebels 28-17 and Beauchamp earned the first star nod for his effort.
“It’s been like that since the start of the season,” Mois said of the weekend intensity between the Leafs and the Rebels. “We will keep it going into the playoffs for sure, they are good games.”
If the regular season results were the playoffs, the series would be tied at three and heading into a seventh game. Overall the Leafs hold the edge in goals over the first six games by a margin of 22-19.
It would take some sort of mathematical miracle for the Leafs and Rebels to change their current positions in the Neil Murdoch Division. The Rebels are 11 points behind first place Beaver Valley with seven games left. The Leafs are 15 points behind the Rebels with eight games left and still hold an 11-point advantage over the fourth place Spokane Braves.
A first round tilt is almost assured.
“It’s definitely different… you get a lot more pumped up for the games,” Schell said of the rivalry that has been compounding all season long with the Rebels. “They play physical and fast so we have to run them down by doing the same thing.”
Mois agreed that the feeling on the ice is a bit different when they match-up against the Rebels.
“We expect them to come out hard, that’s the kind of team they are,” said Mois. “It’s fun to play in games like that, you get a little more into when guys are hitting you.”
The two teams will once again engage in a home-and-home on February 10 and 11.
The Leafs next action is this coming weekend when they host Grand Forks on Friday at 7 p.m. and Spokane on Sunday at 2 p.m. Both games are at the NDCC.