The regular season is done. Now the main event can finally begin for the Nelson Leafs.
Nelson capped its campaign with a 2-1 win against Spokane on Saturday. The victory ensured the Leafs and Braves will meet in the first round of the KIJHL playoffs, which begin Tuesday in Nelson.
Leafs forward Keenan Crossman said he can’t wait. “Nothing better than playoff hockey.”
Caiden Kreitz stopped 25 shots while Crossman and Shawn Campbell each scored for the Leafs, who finished the season with a 35-11-2 record atop the Neil Murdoch Division.
Nelson opened the season in September with a six-game winning streak, and ever since the team’s second consecutive division title seemed like an eventuality.
Last season the Leafs advanced to the Kootenay Conference final only to fall to the eventual champion Kimberley Dynamiters. That result still felt like a victory for the Leafs, but this year Crossman said it’s championship or bust.
“We expect to win the championship this year. We believe we have the group of guys to get it done and with Caiden in net, we’re set.”
Saturday night’s game served as a good preview of what’s to come.
Alex Enegren had the lone goal for the Braves (19-25-4), and Campbell Arnold made 29 saves for a tenacious Spokane team that’s much better than their record shows.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said he thought the game was the de facto playoff opener.
“It shows me they are ready to compete and we certainly welcome that,” he said. “We believe that we’re the better team when we play between the whistles and when you get great officiating like you did tonight where the referee managed the crowd, I thought the teams were allowed to play.”
Nelson won the season series 4-2 against Spokane, but the Braves have weapons to make life difficult for the Leafs. That includes forward Bear Hughes, who finished the campaign seventh overall in league scoring.
Last season the Leafs expected an easy first round against Grand Forks. Instead, they blew a 3-0 series lead and had to survive an unexpected Game 7.
Kreitz said hubris won’t be a problem this time.
“I think last year for sure once we got that 3-0 lead we thought they were going to pack it in, but there’s really no momentum in playoffs game to game. It’s whoever wants it more on any given night can win, so preparation is going to be key for each game.”
Nelson controlled the early game and went ahead eight minutes into regulation. Crossman took the puck off a faceoff and sent in a low shot that surprised Arnold for the first goal.
A slew of penalties from both teams added colour to the period and appeared to allow Spokane to assert itself. The Braves then tied the game with four minutes remaining. Kreitz made two saves to hold off a 2-on-1 from Hughes and Aaron Morris, but a trailing Enegren capitalized on a third rebound.
Both teams stayed level through the second period. The best chance either team had came on an errant Braves shot that bounced off the post, trickled along the goal-line behind Kreitz and somehow stayed out.
Tensions had been bubbling throughout the game and that came to a head in the third when Leafs forward Joshua Stypka appeared to punch a Spokane player in the back of the head while they were on the ice. That prompted Marcel Epkey to take exception and throw Stypka to the ice.
Each player was sent to the penalty box, and moments later Campbell found the back of the net behind Arnold on a rebound for the go-ahead goal.
Spokane pulled Arnold with nearly two minutes left in regulation, and the Braves gained yet another man when Leafs defenceman Tulsen Fawcett took a late cross-checking penalty.
The advantage was short lived. Braves forward Jed Butler took a roughing penalty with 49 seconds left, forcing Arnold back to his net. Moments later, Kreitz stuck out a pad to deny close chance, and the Leafs ended the season with a win against their future playoff opponent.
Leaflets: D Kaleb Comishin (upper body) and D Michael LeNoury (lower body) both sat out with injuries. DiBella said they would be back in the roster for Game 1 of the playoffs. … Leafs forward Jack Karran finished the season with 27 goals and 33 points, good for ninth overall in league scoring. … Nelson hosts Game 1 and Game 2 on Tuesday and Wednesday.