Billed as a clash of the KIJHL titans, Wednesday night’s first place showdown between the Nelson Junior Leafs and Castlegar Rebels instead turned into a pre-Christmas nightmare for the hosts.
Leading the league and four points up on the Rebels heading into the game, the Leafs hoped to deliver a big lump of coal to their visitors and assert their top-billing. It didn’t turn out that way as the Rebels thumped the Leafs 6-1 and now trail the locals by two points in the standings heading into the holiday break.
“It puts it in perspective that we are not an undefeatable team,” said veteran defenceman JJ Beitel after the game. “We still need to work on the little things to be successful.”
The Leafs came out strong in the opening period, dominating the first seven minutes. Then captain Colton Schell checked Rebels defenceman Brett Leidel and the big blueliner fell awkwardly into the boards. The hit earned the Leafs leading scorer a five-minute major for boarding and a game ejection.
With Linden Horswill and Carson Willans doing a tremendous job penalty killing, the Leafs managed to kill the penalty and even drew a two-minute to Cody Lebreque to make it four-on-four for the last two minutes of the major. Then just as Lebreque was released from the penalty box, he joined Jamie Vlanich on a two-on-one. Vlanich shot low and beat Nelson starter Cody Boeckman to make it 1-0. At that point the Leafs were outshooting the Rebels 7-2.
“They got that first goal and we died,” said Beitel. “But the score was not indicative of the play, their goalie played well.”
The score remained 1-0 going into the first period intermission.
Just over a minute into the second period, another two-on-one off a turnover led to Aaron Petten increasing the lead to 2-0. Two minutes after that, Bryan Lubin scored on a breakaway to make the advantage three.
The line of Horswill, Willans and Dustin Reimer finished the period strong for the Leafs with a solid shift that drew a penalty late in the game, but the Leafs could not capitalize on the opportunity.
Three minutes into the third period Aaron Dunlap finished a nice two-on-one thanks to a James Sorrey pass and cut the lead to 3-1. But that was all Rebels starter Jordan Gluck would give, stopping the other 11 Leafs shots in the final frame.
With 11 minutes left to play in the period, sloppy play in the defensive zone allowed Vlanich to score his second goal of the game. More defensive breakdowns with six minutes left, led to a Darren Medeiros goal and a 5-1 Castlegar lead. Kody Disher finished off the scoring with just under five left to play on yet another two-on-one that left the home side demoralized.
“It wasn’t our best game,” Leafs coach Frank Maida told the Star after the game.
“We started strong and controlled the game in the first 10 minutes. They scored a goal after a big penalty kill and they gained momentum.”
When the final buzzer sounded the Rebels celebrated like they had just one the biggest games of the season. Which is likely the fact.
“They were rubbing it in our face… we’ll take note,” Beitel said of the enthusiastic celebration by the Rebels.
The assistant captain said the Leafs will use the loss as fuel to come back from the Christmas break hungry.
“It’s tough to lose going into the break like this, but it’s a good thing at the same time,” said Beitel. “We have some time to think about it and we can come back after the break ready to go.”
It won’t take long for the Leafs to seek revenge for the bitter loss. The two teams play in Castlegar on January 6.
“We’re looking forward to playing to them again,” said Maida. “I know the guys are disappointed and we will see what happens next time.”
The Leafs next game is December 28 when they host the Spokane Braves at the Nelson and District Community Complex. The puck drops at 7 p.m.
IN THE CREASE: The Leafs called up Kootenay Midget Ice forward Nolan Percival for the game. The 15-year-old Nelson Minor Hockey grad played well in a limited role. Earlier this week Percival and his Ice teammate Brandon Sookro were named to the BC Major Midget all-star team and will play in the showcase event in Langley on January 18… Nelson has lost Matthew Naka for what could be the remainder of the season. The gritty forward slipped on some ice and broke his ankle earlier this week.