If the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League post season started today, the Nelson Junior Leafs would be sitting pretty. First in the league and top in the division, the locals would be matched against the Spokane Braves in the first round.
Problem is, the playoffs don’t start today. And though the Leafs are one of the league’s elite squads, the drive to the playoffs is going to be an epic battle.
With the Neil Murdoch Division holding down the top-three spots in the league, the trick for the Leafs is going to be how to avoid the surging Castlegar Rebels and Beaver Valley Nitehawks in the first round of the run for league championship.
“Every game now, we are taking it as a playoff game,” said Leafs’ coach Frank Maida. “The boys are preparing that way and we are starting our playoffs early.”
Though the Braves are not pushovers, better to be playing a team with a below .500 record than one of the powerhouses just down the highway.
After a weekend roadtrip west where the Leafs finished with a 2-1 record, Nelson is now tied with the Rebels for top spot (the Leafs get to stay on top because of more wins). Beaver Valley is three points behind, but have added scoring machine Ryan Edwards who quit the Trail Smoke Eaters last month.
Despite the uneasy prospect of meeting either Beaver Valley or Castlegar in the first round, Maida told the media he is not spending much time thinking about the opposition in late-February.
“Eventually you are going to have to play them,” Maida said of Beaver Valley and Castlegar. “Our main focus is our goal and that is to finish first in our division. We are not looking any further than that.”
Over the weekend the Leafs started the roadtrip with a 3-2 overtime win against Chase. They followed it up Saturday night with a solid 4-2 win in Kamloops. In the final game of the trip, Nelson ran out of gas and dropped a 3-0 decision to North Okanagan in Armstrong.
“Overall we played well in all three games,” said Maida. “We worked hard and in the Sunday game we just couldn’t get a break and we didn’t have the legs with a short bench.”
The flu went through the team over the weekend which didn’t help with fresh legs.
With the passing of the final roster deadline last week, the Leafs current line-up is what Maida hopes will lead Nelson to a championship banner.
In late-November the Leafs were the clear favourites to come out on top. With a comfortable lead, the team boasted the league’s top line with captain Colton Schell, super rookie Colton McCarthy and power forward Jacob Boyzchuk. In early December, 16-year-old McCarthy left for the Western Hockey League and just before the trade deadline Maida dealt Boyzchuk to the Kimberley Dynamiters.
To firm up the line-up for the stretch run, Maida acquired veteran goaltender Marcus Beesley from Kamloops and traded for Grand Forks’ top scorer Connor Gross.
At last week’s deadline, Maida added one more weapon he hopes will complete the chemistry of the team. Maida managed to get defenceman Robson Cramer from the US Hockey League where he was playing a limited role with the Wichita Falls Wildcats. Cramer spent last season with the Osoyoos Coyotes where he put up solid d-man numbers with three goals and 34 assists.
Maida is confident he made the moves that will combat the additions to Beaver Valley and Castlegar.
“I’m not concerned,” Maida said of the solid rosters both the Nitehawks and Castlegar have put together. “We have added some depth on our team and we are excited about that.”
The final 11 games will be a huge challenge for the Leafs. They play both Beaver Valley and Castlegar twice. Added in are strong out-of-division teams Sicamous and Revelstoke. Even the weaker teams like Columbia Valley and Spokane are no pushovers.
“All of those games [against Beaver Valley and Castlegar] are four-point games and they will be key,” said Maida. “But we have to prepare for all the games and every two points will be vital heading down the stretch.”
Maida is confident his team has what it takes to end up on top after the final buzzer sounds on the regular season on February 16.
“We have to be consistent in every game,” he said. “If we play our game in every game, we will end up first [in the division].”
The Leafs return home to the NDCC on Friday night where they will take on the upstart Columbia Valley Rockies. Puck drops at 7 p.m. on the only game of the weekend.