Any championship aspirations after one good month of hockey by the Nelson Leafs suddenly look painfully premature.
The Leafs may be atop the Neil Murdoch Division, but they looked like pretenders to the throne in a 2-1 loss to the reigning KIJHL champion Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Friday at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Beaver Valley looked every bit like title contenders in the win. The Leafs? They looked overwhelmed.
“B.V. showed up and played a full 60 minutes,” said Nelson forward Logan Wullum. “We probably played about 40 of it.”
Even 40 minutes might be optimistic.
Wullum had the lone goal for Nelson (6-2-1), which had a four-game winning streak snapped and lost for the first time since their second game of the season on Sept. 9. Quinn Yeager meanwhile made 22 saves in Nelson’s net.
Nelson had opened the season with a 1-0 win against the Nitehawks, but that team had just 13 players on the bench at the time. Nearly a month later the Nitehawks are at full strength and looked every bit the perennial contenders they have been for years.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said he wasn’t surprised by the result.
“You have to respect a team that lost in overtime of the Western Canadian Championship,” said DiBella. “When they come out to play they come prepared and they always play for 60 minutes.
“We, unfortunately, did not come to play the first part of the game and consequently gave up opportunities. We were selfish when playing team defence coming out of our zone and gave up two goals that were easily avoidable, both from how we move the puck to how we supported the puck.”
Bradley Ross and Aiden Browell scored for Beaver Valley (5-3-1), while Owen Sikkes stopped 19 shots.
Wullum said the younger players in the locker-room may have been flying a little too close to the sun before the puck dropped.
“They’ve only been around a winning team so they don’t understand how hard a team like B.V. is, a top team in the league and how they can come out and actually dominate us,” said Wullum. “It was in our heads a bit, being in the top spot, I think we took that for granted.”
Beaver Valley drew first blood 13 minutes into the game. Ross had the puck in the slot when he managed to slip through a hole in the Leafs’ defence and slide a shot past Yeager’s pads.
The score was nearly 2-0 with a minute to go. Nitehawks forward Damon Kramer was wide open when he took a pass with Yeager out of position. But with nothing but net in front of him Kramer whiffed and the puck completely missed what should have been an easy tap into the net.
No one on the Nitehawks bench was mourning Kramer’s missed chance after the second period began. They needed just a minute and a half to go up by two when Blake Sidoni found Browell on a pass behind the net for a bang-bang goal.
Yeager kept the score from getting worse a short time later with a big save. A Leafs defender slipped and fell, coughing up the puck to a lone Nitehawks forward, but Yeager wasn’t fooled on the deke.
Beaver Valley continued to press and kept the Leafs from setting up on offence in a physical period that often seemed to go the way of the visitors.
Leafs defenceman Brent Headon said he thought the team had a habit of panicking whenever it had the puck.
“I don’t think we were prepared enough. We came out flat-footed and probably should have worked a lot harder and not underestimating them as much.”
A scary moment occurred with 2:30 left to go before the period ended. Kramer had to be helped off the ice by two teammates after he took a hit to the head by Nelson’s David Sanchez, who got two minutes and a 10-minute misconduct for the infraction.
Yeager saved the Leafs again early in the third. Dylan Heppler, who entered the game third in league scoring, broke loose and went one-on-one with Yeager. Heppler was hooked by Dash Thompson, but was only just barely denied by the outstretched toe of the Leafs’ goalie.
Wullum took advantage of a lax Nitehawks defence on the ensuing power kill. He collected the puck and whipped a back hand that was too heavy for Sikkes to handle, cutting the deficit to one.
Nevertheless, the goal still did little to invigorate the Leafs, who were stifled by Beaver Valley’s blueliners.
Nelson’s best chance was denied by a huge Sikkes’ save with a minute to go in regulation. Sanchez was in the corner when he found Ryan Cooper in front of the net. Cooper got a shot off only for it to go wide after Sikkes dove forward with a stick check.
DiBella said he hoped the loss was a learning opportunity for a team that, up until Saturday, had been overwhelming opponents.
“It’s an opportunity for the players to show what they’re made of,” said DiBella. “Hockey isn’t a game that builds character, it exposes character. Some players respond well to the adversity and others shrink and aren’t seen. Those that rise to the occasion are going to be rewarded and those that don’t won’t see ice.”
Leaflets: Nelson is back home Saturday night for a game against the Spokane Braves.