Jack Karran has never previously captained a team. It took him all of one game to look like a leader.
Karran, a 20-year-old forward entering his third season with the Leafs, scored as Nelson opened the KIJHL regular season with a 4-1 shellacking of the North Okanagan Knights on Friday.
The new captain said he hopes his play sets the tone for the Leafs, who have big dreams after making it to the Kootenay Conference finals last spring.
“I hope they just look up to me and see the direction we’re heading in and what we want to accomplish this year, which is winning everything,” he said.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said Karran’s effort stood out in the pre-season.
“He leads by example, he doesn’t take unnecessary penalties and I think the players in the room really gravitate toward him.”
Ryan Piva scored twice and David Sanchez also scored for the Leafs (1-0-0), with Caiden Kreitz making 13 saves.
Ty Toppe had the lone goal for the Knights (0-1-0), while Austin Madge was forced to stop 45 shots.
Just nine players from last season were on the Leafs’ opening-night roster, but the new-look team was sharp to start the game.
Kreitz, who played backup last season, turned aside a Knights breakaway in the first 10 minutes as Nelson’s new No. 1 goaltender. Trail Thompson, who Nelson acquired from Spokane in the off-season, also looked dangerous from the blue-line with several close chances on a power play.
Nelson and North Okanagan were playing 4-on-4 when Piva took the puck out of a scrum at the boards, turned and fired from close range for Nelson’s first goal of the season at 8:19.
But just four minutes later Toppe had the Knights’ second breakaway and this time beat Kreitz to tie the game.
It took just 15 seconds in the second for the Leafs to begin what would be a dominate 20 minutes. Karran led a rush off the opening faceoff and banged the puck in for the 2-1 lead.
Nelson continued to pour it on, giving Kreitz long waits before the puck would enter his zone. Piva scored his second at 5:38 when he got a stick on a loose puck in front of Madge.
Piva said he focused on strength training in the off-season and it showed. He was often the best player on the ice and looked dangerous whenever he had the puck.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “Overall physical shape, mindset, everything’s just a lot more mature now. It feels a lot better out there.”
North Okanagan was lucky to escape just two goals down — the Leafs out-shot the Knights 23-3 by the time the period was over.
The Leafs played with just four defencemen, but they looked terrific after a first-intermission talking to from DiBella in which he noted they were spending too much time regrouping in their own zone.
“We discussed with the defencemen we wanted them to play more of a north-first game,” said DiBella. “So I thought they responded really well in the second period by getting the puck moving and getting it up to our forwards, who took over from there.”
Piva nearly had his hat trick halfway through the third. He was in the slot for a point-blank shot that Madge stopped, and was then pushed to the ice but got his stick on the rebound and just missed the open net.
Moments later the Leafs made up for that with a goal that showed off the strength of one of the new players. Rookie defenceman Alex Erichuk fired a wicked shot from the blue-line that Sanchez deflected past Madge, extending Nelson’s lead to three.
It was a good first impression for a team of unfamiliar faces that is still missing at least two defencemen (DiBella said the Leafs are waiting on a pair of blue-liners who are still with Junior A clubs).
Piva could be forgiven then for being optimistic about the Leafs’ season after just one game.
“I think we’ve got a great group of guys here. Everyone puts in 100 per cent at practices, workouts. Just the work ethic that we’ve got this year is going to take us far.”
Leaflets: F Logan Wullum, D Michael LeNoury and D Kaleb Comishin were named assistant captains. … Former Humboldt Broncos player Ashton McLeod dropped the puck in a ceremony prior to the start of the game. … LeNoury will miss the first three games of the season because of a suspension that carried forward from last season. … Nelson next visits Sicamous on Saturday. The Leafs return home Sept. 14 to open a three-game homestand against the Grand Forks Border Bruins.