A pair of weekend wins have put the Nelson Junior Leafs in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League penthouse.
The Leafs topped the Grand Forks Border Bruins 4-1 on Friday night in the Boundary country and then returned home Saturday to edge the Golden Rockets 5-3.
“The boys are playing well,” Leafs coach Frank Maida told the Star. “Games are getting tougher as teams are looking forward to playing us and giving us a good game. But we keep hanging in there and coming up with wins.”
Though it’s been a couple of years since the local club has enjoyed this much success, Maida is familiar with the view from the top.
Maida was the assistant coach to Simon Wheeldon when the pair guided the Leafs to five hugely successful seasons. Other than the first 2005-06 season when Wheeldon inherited a team, the Leafs finished atop the Neil Murdoch Division for four straight seasons. Three of those seasons saw the team first overall in the league in the regular season. In those four seasons the Leafs went 151-38 and only lost seven games in the championship season of 2008-09.
Having seen this script before, Maida knows it is going to take even more determination to hold the position as the top dog.
“We just have to keep working harder,” said Maida. “They know the teams are out to get us and the boys just continue to get better. They know they have to work hard in practice, and we are doing that.”
After a scoreless opening period on Friday night, Jacob Jeske scored on Leafs starter Cody Boeckman two minutes into the middle frame to give the home side a 1-0 lead.
Less than a minute later Carson Willans tied the score, and with five minutes left in the second, captain Colton Schell gave Nelson the 2-1 lead.
Just under two minutes into the final period Cole Arcuri and Jacob Boyzchuk scored 10 seconds apart to give the visitors a 4-1 lead. Though Grand Forks fought hard to mount a comeback, Boeckman was solid in preserving the lead and the win.
On Saturday night, the Rockets mounted one of the biggest challenges the Leafs have faced in the recent run.
Linden Horswill opened the scoring seven minutes into the first period to give the home side the early advantage.
With eight minutes left in the period, Keith Wake notched the score at ones when he scored a shorthanded goal on Leafs starter Brett Soles.
The Leafs outshot the Rockets 14-5 in the opening frame.
Schell regained the lead for Nelson just over eight minutes into the middle period, but once again the Rockets responded to tie the game 2-2 with just under five minutes left.
The teams exchanged goals in the late stages of the period to head into the dressing room tied at three. In a rare stat during the Leafs’ current hot streak, their opposition actually outshot the Leafs in the middle stanza 15-12.
JJ Beitel gave the Leafs the lead once again just over five minutes into the third period when the veteran defenceman scored on the powerplay.
The Rockets kept the heat on the Leafs for the rest of the period, but Soles was solid between the pipes.
Aaron Dunlap scored into the empty net to salt away the win with 44 seconds left.
The win was the Leafs’ ninth in a row.
“We hope it is going to continue,” Maida said of the team’s current streak. “Our goal is a lot more simple than that, we just need to go out and make sure we are responsible in all three zones. If we come back to the dressing room and know we played a honest, hard game… hopefully things will work out.”
The Leafs will now play four games away from the NDCC. On Tuesday night (after Star deadline) they travelled to Fruitvale to take on the Beaver Valley Nitehawks. On the weekend they will travel to the East Kootenay to take on Golden, Kimberley and Columbia Valley.