The Nelson Junior Leafs will hit the road this weekend for an important three-game set against East Kootenay teams, but the bigger picture goal is more important than what will shake out in the standings come Sunday night.
“A roadtrip like this is very important,” explained Leafs head coach Frank Maida. “It’s an opportunity to do some team-building. We can have some fun and go to work when it’s time to go work.”
Since the start of October, the Leafs have certainly been getting the job done on the ice. On Tuesday night in Fruitvale the locals won their 10th game in a row with a thrilling 7-6 victory over the Beaver Valley Nitehawks. Since October 6 the Leafs have won 13 of their last 15 games.
Maida feels heading out on the road at this point in the season is perfectly timed. It will give his squad an opportunity to spend quality time together on the bus, in the hotel and between games.
Of course when they match up against Kimberley (Friday), Golden (Saturday) and Columbia Valley (Sunday), they will be looking to return to Nelson with six more points to build on their Kootenay International Junior Hockey League overall lead.
“We are looking forward to playing teams we haven’t seen too much of,” said Maida. “We are looking for victories in all three games of the roadtrip.”
On Tuesday night, the Leafs continued to find ways to win with a wild come-from-behind victory in Fruitvale.
In the last couple of weeks, the Leafs have pummeled their Neil Murdoch Division rivals by scores of 10-3 and 12-0. On Tuesday night, the feisty Nitehawks were not about to let it happen again.
The Nitehawks came out strong in the first period and scored a pair of goals on Nelson starter Cody Boeckman by the midway point of the opening frame. But in a three second span, with eight minutes left in the period, captain Colton Schell and Bryce Nielsen scored to notch the score at two.
With just over two minutes left in the wild first period, Kurt Black scored to give the home side the 3-2 lead. Then with one second remaining in the period, Black completed his hat trick to send the teams into the dressing room with Beaver Valley leading 4-2.
The Nitehawks outshot the Leafs 14-8 in the first 20 minutes.
The Leafs stormed back in the second period with Aaron Dunlap and Schell tying the score in the late stages of the period. But once again the Nitehawks responded late — with 1:08 on the clock — to head into the break with a lead.
Five minutes into the final period, Schell completed his hat trick on the powerplay when he scored on Zach Perehudoff to tie the score once again. Five minutes after that Danny Vlanich returned the favour with a powerplay marker of his own to put the Nitehawks up 6-5.
With just over eight minutes left in the third, Dunlap scored his second of the game on the powerplay to tie the score. Then with just under two minutes left in the period, Leafs rookie Colton McCarthy notched the game winner.
The Nitehawks once again outshot the Leafs in the final period 16-11.
With the season nearing its midway point, Maida admits he didn’t really think about having his team in this position at this juncture.
“I really didn’t think about it,” Maida said of being first in the league. “I just thought about a putting a team together that wanted to buy into a team program and play system hockey. It’s working so far.”
Though Maida stresses the team game, there have been a few surprises that have helped fuel the Leafs’ current run.
The goaltending tandem of Cody Boeckman and Brett Soles have exceeded expectations. Though the team’s offence has been pelting opposition goaltenders with shots, the pair have been solid when needed.
At the start of the season Boeckman was slotted in as the starter, but Junior B rookie Soles has compiled a 9-0 record and is second in the league in goals-against-average. Instead of a number-one and number-two, Maida now has the luxury of two top ‘tenders.
“Not many teams can alternate goalies and be completely comfortable,” said Maida. “We feel real good about that part of the team.”
Another key part of the team’s defence has been the play of rookies Seth Schmidt and Cole Arcuri. Both grads of major midget hockey, the youngsters have not looked out of place on the blueline.
“They are coming along really well,” said Maida. “They are bright hockey players. They have learned the difference between minor hockey and junior hockey. They have the skills and they are big part of our team.”
IN THE CREASE: Rookie Colton McCarthy is back in Nelson after a three-game stint with the Moose Jaw Warriors. The 16-year-old played in three of the team’s games on their road trip through Calgary, Medicine Hat and Cranbrook… After his four-point performance on Tuesday, Schell is back on top of league scoring.