It’s as even a first round playoff series as you can get and one that promises plenty of excitement. Two bitter rivals, deadlocked during regular season, will settle the score over the next week.
Game one of the Neil Murdoch Division semi-final opens tonight in Castlegar with the Nelson Junior Leafs and Castlegar Rebels looking to start a march towards a KIJHL championship on the right bladed foot.
“It’s going to be a very good series,” says Leafs’ head coach Frank Maida. “Both teams get excited to play each other.”
The eight regular season games solved nothing in the Highway 3A rivalry. In a back-and-forth manner, the two teams came out with four wins each. Though the Rebels finished 13 points ahead of the Leafs in the regular season standings, that will mean nothing when the puck drops at the Castlegar Community Complex in what could very likely be a series that goes the seven game distance.
“I would say we are a bit of an underdog on paper, but through playing them we are all square. So it’s anyone’s series to win,” says Leafs’ leading goal scorer Patrick Martens.
“It’s going to be a really fun series… it will be war for sure.”
Both teams boast a potent offensive attack with a mix of proven veterans like Castlegar’s Anthony Delong and flashy newcomers like Nelson’s Nik Newman.
“Castlegar is a similar team to us,” says Maida. “They move their feet and they move the puck well. They have a lot of experience up front that can do a lot of damage so we have to be ready and pay a lot of attention to those guys.
“We are a pretty deep, four strong line team. It will be to our advantage that we can throw out any line at any time and create some opportunities. Our defence is very good with experienced guys like Jonathan Petrash and Tyler Parfeniuk, and some young guys that are eager. We do have the nucleus and we are gelling at the right time of the season… we are all excited and ready to go.”
As is the case in any successful playoff run, the last line of defence will play a major role ultimate success. In that category, the Leafs have a proven money goaltender in Andrew Walton who helped take the Fernie Ghostrider to final of the Cyclone Taylor Cup last spring.
“It will be a tough series and it could come down to goaltending. If that’s the case then I feel pretty good about our goaltending presently,” says Maida, who was quick to give plenty of credit for the team’s regular success to back-up rookie puck stopper Patrick Defoe.
“At this point Andrew will start the playoffs and we will see how it goes from there,” adds Maida. “If he needs a rest or a break then Patrick will be ready for it.”
Martens agrees that the guys wearing the biggest pads will be instrumental, but he’s not throwing the team’s fate on one player.
“All the pressure shouldn’t be on the goaltenders,” says Martens. “Obviously they have a big stake in it, but we have shown we can score a lot of goals.”
Maida says one of the key intangibles will be special teams.
“Discipline will be a very important part,” says the Leafs’ coach. “They have a very good powerplay and our powerplay has been clicking of late. The team that stays out of the box will have the advantage and we are going to focus on that.”
So who is going to come out on top? It’s nearly impossible to call at this point, but Maida is preparing his crew for a long and exhausting series.
“Once you hit the playoffs there is no time,” says Maida who has enjoyed a few marches to the KIJHL finals while an assistant under Simon Wheeldon a couple years back. “You play almost every day and you have to be ready. We will play one period at a time and that is how we are entering the series… we are not looking any farther than the first period of the first game.”
The puck drops at the Castlegar Complex at 7:30 p.m. Game two will also be set in Castlegar on Saturday night. Games three and four return to Nelson on Monday and Tuesday night starting at 7 p.m.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Regular season records
Castlegar: 37-11-1-3 78 points • second in the Neil Murdoch Division • tied for second in the KIJHL overall standings
Nelson: 30-17-0-5 65 points • third in the Neil Murdoch Division • tied for eighth in the KIJHL overall standings
Castlegar goals for/goals against: 255/133
Nelson goals for/goals against: 259/167
Individuals to watch
Castlegar leading point getter: Stuart Walton – 87 points
Castlegar leading goal scorer: Anthony Delong – 39 goals
Castlegar penalty minute leaders: Kody Disher and Erik Alden – 148 minutes
Castlegar goaltenders save percentage: Connor Beauchamp .898 (29 games) and Jordan Gluck .898 (26 games)
Nelson leading point getter: Nik Newman – 68 points
Nelson leading goal scorer: Patrick Martens – 40 goals
Nelson penalty minute leader: Colton Malmsten – 181 minutes
Nelson goaltenders save percentage: Andrew Walton .892 (28 games) and Patrick Defoe .878 (23 games)
Head to Head this Season
September 16 Nelson 3 Castlegar 0 in Castlegar
September 17 Castlegar 6 Nelson 3 in Nelson
December 9 Nelson 5 Castlegar 2 in Nelson
December 17 Castlegar 6 Nelson 4 in Castlegar
January 27 Nelson 6 Castlegar 2 in Nelson
January 28 Castlegar 4 Nelson 1 in Castlegar
February 10 Nelson 6 Castlegar 2 in Castlegar
February 11 Castlegar 7 Nelson 3 in Nelson