Tyson Lautard saw something most defencemen never witness Friday night.
The Nelson Leafs’ blueliner brought the puck out from behind his net and started skating up the ice. In front of him? Nobody. A lane opened up down the centre and he carried the puck all the way.
Lautard finished his end-to-end voyage with a wrist shot that bounced high off the top of Beaver Valley goaltender Kevin Engman’s glove and dropped behind him into the net.
“It was just a greasy goal,” said Lautard.
It was also a crucial one. Lautard’s third-period goal tied the game for the Leafs, who rallied back from a 3-1 deficit.
Then in overtime, Simon Nemethy was in the right place to score on a rebound from Tyler Pisiak’s shot, and the Leafs completed their comeback with a 4-3 win over the Nitehawks.
Lautard said he had been looking to pass on his goal, but was never challenged by the Nitehawks. It was as perplexing to him after the game as it was in the moment. “There was a lane to skate so I just took it.”
Pisiak and Dylan Mowery also scored for the Leafs (30-10-1), who finish the regular season Saturday against the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
Nelson opens the playoffs against the Castlegar Rebels on Tuesday at the Nelson and District Community Complex. The Leafs then host Game 2 on Wednesday before the series moves to Castlegar for Games 3 and 4 on Feb. 25 and 26.
Nelson may have gotten two points Friday but they looked shaky throughout the game against a determined Beaver Valley squad.
“I thought that we weren’t at our best …,” said head coach Mario DiBella. “I was impressed how they bounced back in the third period. They took what other teams might have folded with, with some unfortunate puck bounces at our net, and turned it into a tie.”
Nelson goaltender Tenzin Mint allowed three goals on 17 shots. He was replaced in the second period by Dylan Marshall, who stopped 17 in his return from injury after not having played since Jan. 18.
Marshall said his teammates made it easy for him to come back.
“They definitely helped me after going out. Not a lot of quality shots. I tried my best to help them win.”
The team had played only one goalie in Mint during Marshall’s absence, but it worked out with a streak of quality performances by Mint. DiBella said he was happy to get his second goalie back on the ice.
“(Marshall) was outstanding. He was so solid. He follows and tracks the puck so well. We’re just grateful that he’s 100 per cent healthy and we’re grateful that he can play if called upon.”
Hunter Burgeson scored twice while Ethan Smyth added a single for the Nitehawks (22-17-3), and Engman made 27 saves.
The game felt like two teams moving into playoff mode from the drop with several hits and scoring chances. But it opened up in the second, and mostly to Beaver Valley’s advantage.
The Leafs took an early lead after Pisiak’s wrist shot beat Engman top corner, but was answered by Smyth less than a minute later.
Burgeson had a highlight goal to take the lead for Beaver Valley. He put on the jets and was a step ahead of a Leafs’ defender along the boards before finishing with a tight-angle shot that Mint couldn’t stop.
Nelson got into penalty trouble not long after, and an ill-advised cross check by Lautard gave the Nitehawks a 5-on-3 advantage that Burgeson used to score his second and end Mint’s night.
The Leafs got a vital goal with four minutes left before the break. Mowery’s point shot bounced off a defender’s skate and past Engman to give the Nelson native his first KIJHL goal.
Lautard said the team made a reset during the second intermission.
“I think we just came into the room after the second period, had a chat and made sure we were all on the same page. After that we came out and pushed a bit harder back and potted a couple.”
The game returned to the deadlock of the first period, and there it stood until Lautard’s remarkable goal set up the winning finish by Nemethy.
Leaflets: It was first-responders night at the game, which also meant it was possibly the best security at a Leafs game ever. … The game was the first since the province removed restrictions on attendance at indoor sports events. Fans responded, with 786 showing up for the game. … The Leafs will honour DiBella on Saturday in the regular-season finale against the Grand Forks Border Bruins. DiBella has announced he will retire at the end of the playoffs.