As fans made their way to the exits, the Nelson Leafs skated to their goaltender to apologize.
Mitchell Lavoie was last in line, and he stayed an extra moment with C.J. Wedenig.
“I told him that he had a really good game and that we left him out to dry a bit there all throughout the game,” said Lavoie. “Not to worry about this one. It’s on us.”
The Leafs had only themselves to blame after being blown out 6-2 against the Kelowna Chiefs on Friday in what should have been a marquee contest between the KIJHL’s two best teams.
The Chiefs arrived on a seven-game winning streak, having lost just once, in overtime, so far this season. Nelson was also carrying a seven-game winning streak, trailing only Kelowna for the best record in the league.
But if the game was a test to see how Nelson stacked up against an elite team, the Leafs emphatically failed.
“I think it was sort of a checkup for us to show that there’s better teams out here and we need to show up and play,” said Lavoie.
Shawn Campbell scored twice for the Leafs (13-2-0), with Wedenig stopping 33 shots.
Zack Erhardt and Brody Dale each had two goals, Devin Sutton and Juanre Naude added singles and Braeden Mitchell made 21 saves for the Chiefs (15-0-1).
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said he thought Kelowna’s skill and physical play intimidated his players.
“I think we were caught sleeping, we were caught spectating and that’s on me as the coach for not having them ready to play the kind of intense game we would have to play to compete with this team,” he said.
Nelson put a scare into the visitors midway through the first period when Jack Karran found space for a short-handed 2-on-1 with Campbell. Karran slipped and went to his knees but completed the pass to Campbell, whose shot was just turned aside by Mitchell.
Kelowna didn’t waste its next power play.
Leafs forward Tyler Nypower was sent to the penalty box for head contact, and only 12 seconds later Erhardt wired a one-timer that deflected over Wedenig for first blood.
Five minutes into the second period it was Kelowna again. Dale, who entered the game with a league-leading 17 goals and 29 assists, fired a wristshot off a faceoff that beat Wedenig for the 2-0 lead.
The Leafs rallied soon after. Karran once again led Campbell on a short-handed 2-on-1, but this time Campbell finished his shot with a goal.
Nelson’s shots were few and far between in the second as Kelowna asserted itself. That pressure paid off with 1:20 left when Erhardt took a close range shot on a power play for the 3-1 advantage heading into the final period.
Leafs forward Logan Wullum said he thought the Chiefs’ top line looked like they should be playing in Junior A.
“They’re the fastest team we’ve played all year,” he said. “Some of the rookies, they haven’t seen this top-end level. [The Chiefs] were just quick around our zone and we just weren’t on them hard enough.”
Kelowna stopped toying with Nelson in the third period.
First, Sutton was well positioned for a rebound off Wedenig to extend the Chiefs’ lead to three goals.
Two minutes later Myles Mattila was against the boards when he put a no-look pass between his legs to Naude in the slot for a goal that deflated the crowd.
The rout was on with yet another Chiefs goal shortly after. Erhardt found a waiting Dale with a cross-ice pass, and Dale completed his second goal of the night with an emphatic slapshot that put his team up 6-1.
Campbell restored a small measure of dignity to the Leafs as the game dragged to its conclusion. Nelson was on the power play when Campbell slapped a shot in the slot to cap the scoring.
Despite the obvious gulf in talent, Lavoie was unimpressed with Kelowna.
“I didn’t think they were very good,” he said. “I thought, one line and a couple solid other guys, but if we played our game we would have destroyed them.”
But they didn’t, and if they want a rematch the Leafs will have to wait for the playoffs. There’s little doubt Kelowna will be there waiting.
Leaflets: Nelson was without F Keenan Crossman (suspension), F Scott Lancaster (upper body), G Caiden Kreitz (upper body). … Nelson played without a backup goalie. … Before the game the Leafs honoured their parents and billet families on the ice. … The Leafs next play the Kimberley Dynamiters on Saturday.