In a Kootenay International Junior Hockey League season, there are a great many variables and unknowns. But one thing is always certain: the top three teams in the Neil Murdoch Division are going to be amongst the best in the league and are going to be slugging it out for division bragging rights all season long.
The Beaver Valley Nitehawks, Castlegar Rebels and Nelson Leafs are perennial KIJHL powerhouses who have taken turns over the last couple decades as league champions. The Spokane Braves might be lacking banners in their arena, but the division’s American cousins are always strongly in the mix.
Because of the might of the Neil Murdoch, divisional match-ups become terribly important no matter what point the season is at. The Leafs will face an early season test when they tangle with the Rebels in a key home-and-home weekend.
“This is a big weekend,” said Leafs coach Frank Maida after watching his team take four of a possible six points in a three-game homestand this past weekend.
“We need to really focus on our division and be up for the challenge in these games. Winning games against teams in your division can separate you either way.”
Though Friday night’s game at the Nelson District Community Complex will only be the Leafs’ tenth of season, a pair of wins will set an important tone for the rest of the season. With a 5-3-1-0 record, the Leafs currently sit in the third place in the division, three points behind the Nitehawks and two points shy of the Rebels. Two wins would catapult them ahead of their Highway 3A rivals.
If the Leafs are to come away with four points they will need to be more consistent as a team. Though it’s early in the season, a top line has emerged with captain Colton Schell clicking with rookie Colton McCarthy and power winger Jacob Boyczuk. Though the line has produced most of the points so far, Maida feels his team has other lines who have been steeping up.
“We are getting an equal amount of scoring from all lines,” said Maida. “We are very deep both upfront and defensively. We are setting lines and have some guys who are starting feel comfortable with each other and it is paying off in games.”
One of the recent additions that should prove to bolster the attack is Matti Jmaeff. The Creston native arrived back in Nelson last week after being released by the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Last season Jmaeff scored 14 goals and added 25 assists in his first season with the Leafs.
“Matti will be a big part of our team,” said Maida. “He brings a lot of size and offence to our team, he is a big addition.”
The Leafs are also enjoying some scoring from its defence. In Sunday’s 7-0 win over the Chase Heat, KIJHL rookie Seth Schmidt scored two goals and added a pair of assists. The Creston native played with the Midget AAA Ice last season and the 17-year-old is expected to continue to play a big role on the blueline.
“Seth has been really coming along really well,” Maida said. “He is getting to understand our systems and the junior game a lot better. Now he is being rewarded and working really well with Kevin Bow in that pairing.”
The puck drops at the NDCC at 7 p.m. The Castlegar side of the home-and-home will be played on Saturday night.