Two goals short led to two points short, which left the Nelson Leafs just short of a regular season division title.
The Leafs fell 4-2 to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in the final game of the regular season Saturday. The loss ended a nine-game winning streak for Nelson and meant the Leafs finish second behind the Nitehawks in the Neil Murdoch Division.
Now it’s onto a playoff series against the Spokane Braves, and Leafs forward Reid Wilson thinks they might just go on another run.
“There’s nothing stopping us from doing that again going into the playoffs,” said Wilson. “Spokane, first round, we are capable of beating them obviously. Hopefully we’ll get some guys back in the lineup and look forward to playing BV again.”
Alek Erichuk scored twice and Anderson Violette made 24 saves for Nelson (30-13-6), which had won the division the previous two years.
Hunter Young stopped 34 shots and Nolan Corrado, Simon Nemethy, Brock Wallace and Bradley Ross scored for Beaver Valley (30-11-8), which needed to win outright to take the division.
They did it, but not convincingly against a Leafs squad that beat them five out of six times this season.
“I thought at times we were brilliant. At times we were not full measure for what we wanted out of our players,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella.
“Certainly I have to give credit to Beaver Valley. They came out and played hard for 60 minutes. We had them down 2-1 and I thought on the ropes after the second period, and they bounced back and came out with a great effort in the third period.”
The Leafs and Braves also met last year in the first round, which ended with Nelson winning in seven games. DiBella said his team won’t sleep on Spokane, which finished the season 20 points behind the Leafs.
“Spokane works hard,” he said. “I think they’re limited in depth, but they keep coming over the bench and work hard. I think as a team we can’t take anything for granted. When they come in here Friday we have to come out with our guns loaded and be prepared to show them playing us in the first round isn’t going to be a pleasant experience for them.”
The end to the regular season also left Wilson third overall in league scoring with 31 goals and 44 assists. His 75 points trailed only Kimberley’s Brock Palmer (98) and Beaver Valley’s Ross (77).
That total is a remarkable jump for a player who had just 46 points last season. Wilson’s season is the best by a Leaf since 2013-14 when Jamie Vlanich had 97 points and his teammate Travis Wellman scored 87.
Wilson said in the past he’d been more focused on goals, but this season he put an emphasis on passing. That’s led to what has been a quietly formidable season by the playmaker.
“I just like to stay humble, don’t show off too much,” he said. “I’ve been sneaking assists in there, other guys are scoring obviously. I got my fair share of goals, but other guys have scored too.”
His coach was more willing to extoll Wilson’s virtues.
“Reid’s a prolific player,” said DiBella. “He’s got a real bag of personal skill and he’s explosive. He’s a great listener when it comes to taking instruction and certainly he exhibited his skill set, scored a number of highlight-reel goals, and when his feet are moving there’s no one in this league that can match up against him.”
On Saturday, it was clear the Nitehawks were motivated when Phillippe Lessard’s shot from the blue-line was deflected past Violette by Wallace just over a minute into the game.
Nelson was fortunate to escape the period only down by a goal. Beaver Valley’s Morgan Peace wired a close-range shot off Violette’s post with just seconds to go before the buzzer rang.
The Leafs and fans thought they tied it up midway through the second when a shot appeared to beat Young, but the officials and goal judge weren’t fooled.
That ended up being moot a few minutes later when Erichuk uncorked a nasty slapshot that beat Young to tie the game.
Five minutes later the Leafs were on a power play when Erichuk wound up again. His shot wasn’t as vicious as the last one, but it bounced off a Nitehawk and past Young to give Nelson its first lead of the night.
Brandon Costa was released on a breakaway in the final minute of the period, but his shot was handled by Young to preserve the one-goal deficit.
Nelson pressed hard in the third for an insurance goal, forcing Young to make several close saves. But it was the Nitehawks who scored on a power play midway through the period. Ross was ready and waiting for the rebound, which he fired just past the outstretched glove of Violette to tie the game.
Beaver Valley once again took the lead, this time for good, when Nemethy’s backhand beat Violette with just 4:32 left on the clock. Corrado added an empty-net goal with 10 seconds remaining to finish off the Leafs.
Leaflets: Nelson played without D Kaleb Comishin (lower body), F Cole Wyatt (upper body), D Logan Macdonald (upper body), F Aiden Jenner (lower body). … The game had a crowd to match the stakes. Announced attendance was 711 at the Nelson and District Community Complex. … Shout out to the person who actually won shoot-to-win in the second intermission. This reporter was starting to think that game was a scam.