Tyler Pisiak isn’t entirely sure how it happened.
In the second period Friday night, the Nelson Leafs captain found himself and teammate Carter White alone with no defencemen nearby and only the opposing goaltender in front of them.
That led to the duo playing a quick game of keep-away in front of Kimberley netminder Ethan McElhinney.
“I gave it to (White), saw he was giving it back and my eyes lit up like it was Christmas,” said Pisiak, who scored his second of the game as Nelson defeated the Dynamiters 5-4 in a wild game between the two division leaders.
It was Nelson’s seventh straight win, but also perhaps its finest of the season. Kimberley played without its star goaltender Trystan Self and had a number of players out serving suspensions, but otherwise looked typically dangerous throughout the game.
The Leafs, facing their first real test of 2022, rose to the occasion.
“We know we’ve been this good and I think it’s about time the rest of the league gets on notice too. …,” said Pisiak. “We believe we can beat anybody right now.”
Bennett Anklewich, Kingsley Brockett, and Lane Goodwin also scored for the Leafs (24-9-1), with Tenzin Mint stopping 24 shots.
Kade Leskosky, Jack Karpyshyn, Christian Mealey and Austin Daniels scored for the Dynamiters (24-9-2), while McElhinney made 22 saves.
Throughout January, the Leafs have feasted on teams below .500 and prior to Friday had only once played a winning team when they beat Columbia Valley on Jan. 21.
That meant a home game against the Dynamiters offered a tantalizing preview of what a conference final might look like between two teams with championship aspirations.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said it didn’t matter much that Kimberley was playing with a short bench.
“That’s probably the best team we’ve seen this year as far as puck movement is concerned,” he said. “They took advantage of their opportunities when the puck was on their stick.”
The puck hadn’t even dropped before a player was sent to the penalty box. Kimberley’s Cash Regan was sent to the box for a warmup violation and the Leafs’ starting lineup had to quickly swap out for the power-play unit.
They didn’t score on the power play, but Nelson took an early lead just over three minutes into the game. A quick shot from a faceoff bounced off McElhinney, and Anklewich pounced on the rebound for the 1-0 lead.
Kimberley answered back at 12:48. Leskosky capitalized after a puck went off the boards and behind Nelson’s defence. He had a clear lane to Mint and went top corner for the tying goal.
The Dynamiters’ celebration lasted only 30 seconds. Nelson replied when Simon Nemethy’s pass found Pisiak a step ahead of a Kimberley blueliner, and the shot was too fast for McElhinney to react to.
Kimberley pressed, and even whiffed on an open-net during a power play, but Mint made several strong saves to keep Nelson’s lead heading into the first intermission and a wild middle frame.
The Dynamiters scored twice in 60 seconds to start the second, with Karpyshyn scoring top corner followed by Mealey beating a sprawled-out Mint for what might have been a back-breaking 3-2 lead.
But Nelson rallied, first on a tying goal by Brockett who scored moments after the Leafs killed off a penalty.
The goal was Brockett’s first as a Leaf since he was acquired at the trade deadline from the Sicamous Eagles. He said he was thrilled to be playing for a contender.
“I think we’re in a great spot, obviously,” said Brockett. “Beating Kimberley, a top-place team, really sets the tone for playoffs if we end up playing them. I think we’re on a heater right now and teams should be scared come playoffs.”
The Leafs then restored their lead when Pisiak and White found themselves playing pass all alone in front of a helpless McElhinney. Pisiak finished the keepaway with a goal to give Nelson a 4-3 advantage.
“It would be super embarrassing if you missed it,” Pisiak admitted with a laugh about the goal after the game.
Kimberley was unfazed. Dynamiters defenceman Connor Klassen found Daniels with a long pass, and watched his teammate beat Mint with a shot that appeared to go through the pads to tie the game.
Nelson again regained its lead five minutes into the third. Tyson Lautard’s shot from the blue line was too heavy for McElhinney to handle, and Goodwin was on the doorstep for the goal.
The visitors refused to go home quietly. Daniels was sprung on a lob pass with five minutes left, but he was denied by Mint’s pad save. Kimberley pulled McElhinney in the final minute, but Nelson held on for a very crucial win.
“The effort by our leadership group is second to none,” said DiBella. “When I look down the bench and we’re heading down to that last minute of play and I put Goodwin and Nemethy and Pisiak on the ice, I just know that we’re in good shape because no one is going to outwork them for any opportunity.”
Leaflets: Neither team had a backup goaltender on the bench. … Nelson next hosts the Grand Forks Border Bruins on Sunday afternoon.