The eight-year drought is over, and there’s no telling how much farther the Nelson Leafs will go now.
The Leafs are on their way to the Kootenay Conference final for the first time since 2010 after eliminating the Castlegar Rebels in five games on Monday.
Mitchell Lavoie, who was just 11 years old the last time the Leafs reached the third round, scored the game-winning goal as Nelson won 5-2 in front of a raucous crowd of 836 fans at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Lavoie hasn’t been a regular on the ice during the playoffs, but he made his ice time count in Game 5. Early in the third he picked off a pass deep in the Rebels’ zone, skated uncontested into the slot and scored to give the Leafs a lead they wouldn’t give up.
“I just picked it up and looked around and before I knew it I was like, ‘Holy, there’s no one here. I pretty much have a breakaway,’” a cheery Lavoie said after the game.
Ethan Beattie, Jack Karran, Michael Bladon and Jaiden LaPorte also scored for the Leafs, while Josh Williams finished with 20 saves.
Evan Della Paolera and Chris Breese had Castlegar’s lone goals, and Tanner Douglas allowed five goals on 36 shots.
“When you look at the journey we embarked on this year, now we’re in playoffs, it’s the first team to win four series and we’re only halfway there,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “But it feels great being on this side of the equation.”
The last time Nelson advanced this far was during the 2009-10 season, when it ended up losing to Revelstoke in the league championship.
This year, the Leafs moved on after winning the first two games in overtime against Castlegar, dumping the Rebels 8-4 in Game 3 and overcoming a 6-2 loss in Game 4.
Nelson will next face the Kimberley Dynamiters, who also advanced Monday against the Columbia Valley Rockies. Kimberley, which will host Game 1 on Friday, finished the regular season with the best record in the KIJHL and have lost just once so far during the playoffs.
That doesn’t matter to Lavoie. He’s not ready for this ride to end.
“To go so far and keep going for now, it’s going to be just amazing for the community and the team,” said Lavoie.
Game 5 was immediately more physical and speedy than Game 4.
Beattie opened the scoring with his first of the playoffs. He was part of a scrum in front of Douglas when he was able to bat the puck in for a Leafs’ lead just two and a half minutes into the game.
“It was really nice just to get that off my back and get it going for the boys and get the first one of the night,” said Beattie.
Nelson very nearly added another kill late in the period.
The Leafs were on a penalty kill when Justin Podgorenko escaped with the puck, deftly dodged a hit and managed to get a quick shot on Douglas. That was stopped, but Douglas had trouble on the ensuing rebound by LaPorte and only just found the puck before it crossed the line.
The Rebels got their own short-handed goal just a minute and a half into the second period. Della Paolera mimicked Podgorenko, only his breakaway ended in a top-shelf goal on Williams to tie the game at one.
But 10 minutes later the Leafs restored their lead. Karran was on Douglas’s doorstep to bang home a power-play goal, giving him his team-leading eighth goal of the post-season.
Nelson gave itself some breathing space shortly into the third with Lavoie’s goal, but Breese brought Castlegar to within one by spinning around and scoring on a goal that surprised Williams, who was out of position.
But the Rebels were swiftly demoralized by yet another Leafs’ goal. Castlegar defenceman Chase Daniels was ejected for a head shot to Nicholas Wihak, and on the ensuing power play Sawyer Hunt found Bladon on a pass in which the Nelson blue-liner had nothing but net in front of him for an easy score.
Williams made his mark with a breathtaking save shortly after. He went post-to-post to deny what should have been a sure goal by Brandon Costa, who shook his head as he returned to the bench.
The Leafs continued to press. Yet another power play for the home side saw LaPorte tip in a shot, and Nelson’s lead increased to 5-2.
Castlegar’s composure began to crack. Breese started screaming an official and was tossed from the game, and he was soon followed by Tanner Costa and Rebels coach Bill Rotheisler.
At one point four Rebels were in the box with five minutes left in the game. All the Leafs had to do was wait out the game, and they were on to the conference finals.