Tenzin Mint was in a Grade 11 English class at L.V. Rogers when the Nelson Leafs called with a simple request: save their season.
The Leafs had lost starting goaltender Caiden Kreitz to injury in Game 3, then backup Hunter Young went down in Game 4. Mint, a 16-year-old Nelson native, had sat on the bench for Game 4 but didn’t think he’d ever get on the ice.
He also hadn’t played in a game in over a month with a hip injury.
“I was telling my buddy they are starting a 16 year old in an elimination game and I haven’t been in for five weeks, so I was pretty nervous,” said Mint. “But once I got on the ice I just calmed down and did my thing.”
Did he ever.
Mint, an affiliate player who had made just three prior regular season appearances for the Leafs, held the line with a courageous 23-save shutout in his KIJHL playoff debut as Nelson staved off elimination with a 3-0 win against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks.
“It felt like I hadn’t missed a day. It was good.”
Mint’s performance bought the Leafs at least one more game, and a little hope. They face another elimination game Saturday in Fruitvale. Win that, and they host Game 7 of the Neil Murdoch Division Final on Sunday.
Tyler Nypower, Cole Wyatt, Shawn Grabowsky each scored for the Leafs, who now travel back to Fruitvale for Game 6 on Saturday. Game 7, if necessary, will be played Sunday in Nelson.
Noah Decottignies allowed all three goals on 30 shots for Beaver Valley.
The series took an unfortunate turn for Nelson with injuries to both of its goaltenders prior to Friday. Starter Caiden Kreitz went down with an upper-body injury in Game 3, and Hunter Young followed with the same type of injury in Game 4.
Mint had an adventurous opening to the game when he nearly got caught well out of his crease after sliding too far. But he settled down after that, and made several solid saves to get through the first period unscathed.
“You could see that his confidence grew as the game got underway and he made a couple saves,” said Leafs coach Mario DiBella. “The next challenge for him was coming out and playing the puck, and he came out and played the puck real well. Full marks, he was outstanding.”
No penalties and a quick pace meant the opening period flew by, but Nelson controlled play in the second.
The Leafs nearly took the lead when defenceman Tulsen Fawcett made a nice pass to Reid Wilson, who skated in and tested Decottignies with a shot. The Nitehawks goaltender made the first save then slid to get in position to deny a rebound by Wyatt.
Nelson continued to press and took the lead with 3:55 left in the second. Nypower dangled through the slot, waited for Decottignies to go to the ice and fired a wrist shot over the sprawled-out goalie.
The Leafs were so strong that they outshot the Nitehawks 13-0 to end the period.
Mint had a tremendous save to open the third. Beaver Valley’s Paul Leroux stole the puck in the Leafs zone, found space and wired a shot that Mint had to slide and stop with his chest.
The Leafs defence, meanwhile, limited most of the Nitehawks’ chance to shots from the boards.
“I thought the defence played a real strong game,” said DiBella. “It just turned into a simple game where if the options weren’t there, it was high off the glass and out of the zone.”
Soon after Wyatt gave the Leafs a very important insurance goal.
Jack Karran passed to Kaleb Comishin, who fired a shot off Decottignies that bounced to a waiting Wyatt for the 2-0 lead.
Less than two minutes later, a shot by Joshua Stypka off Decottignies was swept into the net by Grabowsky to give Nelson some breathing space. That ended up being two more goals than the Leafs needed to live another day.
Nypower said Mint will be key going forward, but so will contributions from a team that finally looked like it was playing with urgency.
“We’ve just got to keep working hard and I think Tenz will do his thing,” said Nypower. “He’s young but he wants to be here. It’s pretty important.”
Leaflets: Mint was backed up by 17-year-old Nelson native Charles Curiston, who has never previously played in the KIJHL. … Nelson played without F Keenan Crossman, who served the third of a three-game suspension. He was replaced in the lineup by Nelson native F Noah Quinn, who looked up to the task whenever he was on the ice.