Presley Gordon knew the Nelson Leafs were better than they were playing.
The Leafs had just lost Game 4 and were trailing the Castlegar Rebels 3-1 in their best-of-seven series when the team held a meeting. They needed a reset in a series against a Rebels team that relied on solid defence and exquisite goaltending to put Nelson against the wall.
“Even though we were down, I wasn’t too afraid because I knew what our team is capable of,” said Gordon. “I knew we were better than the first four games and we just had to bear down a little bit. And we did.”
Three games later, the Leafs completed their comeback with a 3-1 win over the Rebels in Game 7 of the first-round series Wednesday in Nelson.
Gordon scored and assisted on a goal by Ryan Quast, while Bennett Anklewich also scored for the Leafs in front of 1,029 fans — the biggest crowd at the Nelson and District Community Complex since prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nelson goaltender Tenzin Mint finished with 26 saves.
Nelson climbed out of the hole with a 6-3 win on Monday, followed by a double-overtime 4-3 victory in Castlegar on Tuesday. That gave them the chance to retake control of the post-season, which they did with two goals in the third period Wednesday.
“The first round is the hardest round to get through because people just aren’t used to the pace, particularly those who haven’t played in playoffs before in the KI. …,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “I don’t think that you could have orchestrated a better rivalry where two teams left everything they had on the ice tonight.”
Justin Duguay scored for the Rebels, with goaltender Ethan Lawczynski stopping 21 shots.
Lawczynski finally looked human in Game 7 after turning in a series of sensational performances throughout the series that frustrated the Leafs’ offence and earned him praise from DiBella, a former goaltender.
“It took 16 periods for us to understand we needed to get pucks to the net and across the net on a kid who should probably have been playing in Junior A this year. Full marks to Ethan, he’s a hell of a goaltender and we wish him the absolute best going forward.”
Nelson will open the second round at home Friday against either the Beaver Valley Nitehawks or the Creston Valley Thunder Cats. Game 2 will also be played in Nelson on Saturday.
The Leafs looked like a team determined to win when the puck dropped, outshooting the Rebels 8-1 through the opening 10 minutes. Nelson’s best chance came on a tipped shot by defenceman Tyson Lautard that just barely went over the crossbar.
A number of shaky shifts by the Leafs let the Rebels back into the game. The visitors put a scare into the home crowd when defenceman Tymon Sanikipoulos dangled the puck through three Leafs players and fired a shot that Mint only managed to catch a piece of with his glove.
Nelson survived and took the game’s first lead with 1:02 left in the period. Rhett Hamilton’s shot rebounded off Lawczynski’s pads back to Gordon, who tucked the puck in.
The Rebels returned determined in the second. Their persistence paid off when Duguay’s wrist shot from the slot beat Mint top corner over the blocker to tie the game.
Castlegar had a golden opportunity to take the lead after Lautard took a penalty with just over a minute left. The Rebels put three shots on a sprawling Mint, who survived to keep the game tied heading into the third.
A terrific effort on a penalty kill by Quast restored Nelson’s lead three minutes into the final period. He knocked the puck away from the Rebels in the neutral zone, then found himself on a 2-on-1 with Gordon whose shot rebounded off Lawczynski back to Quast for the goal.
“I think they thought they had some fire coming into the period and on the penalty kill we shut them down,” said Quast. “That got all the boys fired up and got us going for the rest of the period.”
After that, the game began to fall away from the Rebels.
Nelson took a 3-1 lead after a critical mistake from Lawczynski. The Rebels goalie didn’t cover a puck near his post and allowed it to slide past him to a waiting Anklewich, who buried his shot uncontested.
Castlegar then lost forward Griffen Ryden for the remainder of the game after he checked a Leafs’ player in the head, costing the Rebels the player who scored a hat trick for them in Game 6.
Tempers flared in the final three minutes. Hamilton and Duguay got tied up and both ended up in the box, costing Castlegar another one of its snipers when the visitors needed goals.
As “board the bus” chants echoed out from the crowd, the Rebels pulled Lawczynski in a last-ditch effort that failed as the Leafs completed an unlikely series comeback.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Quast. “We all just came together and played as a team and did what we had to do to pull it off.
“Onto the next one.”