First place in the league, a seven-game winning streak and a return home after a long road trip to a packed arena. Saturday’s game should have been a victory lap, and it was — just not for the Nelson Leafs.
John Moeller scored twice and the Castlegar Rebels used a three-goal second period to stun the Leafs 5-1 in a game that splashed cold water on Nelson’s dream start to the season.
Leafs captain Sawyer Hunt, usually an affable presence on the ice, appeared to get more and more frustrated as the game went on. Near the end he returned from one shift and sat alone at the end of the bench.
In a telling moment, Jack Karran skated off the ice and exchanged a head shake and frown with Hunt.
“I was pretty choked,” said Hunt.
Defenceman Michael LeNoury, one of the team’s assistant captains, struggled after the game to describe what had happened.
“That was embarrassing to the say the least,” he said, before adding after a pause, “I’m so mad.”
Vince Bitonti, Chris Breese and Jordan Wood also scored for the Rebels (15-7-1), who won their third straight contest and ninth out of their last 10 games. Curt Doyle meanwhile made 24 saves for the visitors.
Nicholas Wihak scored and Sam Burford stopped 28 shots for the Leafs (19-4-2), who were returning home after six games away.
It was a busier than usual night at the Nelson and District Community Complex. Minor hockey and curling tournaments likely contributed to the increased attendance, along with the added draw of the annual Friends of the Family Benefit hosted by the Leafs.
And every person who showed up saw Nelson lay the proverbial egg.
“We have to take responsibility for how we came out and played,” said head coach Mario DiBella. “As a coach I take responsibility for not having the troops prepared. We came out, we didn’t play to our systems, we didn’t use our speed, we just didn’t show up and that’s an inexcusable thing.
“Largest fan-base of the year and we decide not to show up and play.”
An unlucky bounce for the Leafs put them down by one just four minutes into the game. Bitonti tossed a lazy shot in from the blue-line that deflected off a Leafs player and knuckled under Burford’s pads.
But two minutes later Nelson had a deflection go its way. LeNoury’s shot was redirected by Wihak past Doyle and the game was tied at one.
A nifty Castlegar play gave Everett Hicks a chance to put the Rebels back ahead by one. Hicks slipped in behind the Leafs’ defence and just remained onside as his teammate put a pass on his stick while being hit into the board. Hicks had a good look but Burford held his nerve to make the save.
Burford made another eyebrow-raising save minutes later. The Leafs were on the power play when the Rebels’ Breese tried to capitalize on a short-handed breakaway. He was denied though when Burford did the splits to keep the game tied.
Breese got his second chance after the break. Two minutes into the second period he was in front of the net for a tap under Burford’s pads to give the Rebels a 2-1 lead.
Everything got much, much worse for the Leafs after that.
Castlegar dominated the period with a terrific forecheck and a stifling neutral-zone defence. That constant pressure broke the Leafs, who managed just six unconvincing shots during the 20 minutes.
The Rebels took advantage with a goals by Moeller and Wood. Moeller shifted gears after a turnover at the Rebels’ blue-line and sped in for a fast goal, and two minutes later Wood slipped the puck past Burford’s pads for an astonishing 4-1 lead.
“It’s not like we let off the gas. We never really put on the gas,” said LeNoury.
Hunt said the team didn’t take to heart what their coaches were telling them during the first intermission.
“I thought some guys were going tonight, some guys weren’t,” he said. “To be successful you need the whole team going, not just some guys. So in the end that was the problem.”
The pace slowed to a crawl in the third period as Castlegar seemed content to hold its lead.
Castlegar put in the final nail with four minutes left in regulation. Hicks found Moeller in front of Burford for his second of the night, and that essentially ended a bummer of a night in Nelson.
Leaflets: The Leafs are back on the road for the next two games, Dec. 2 for a rematch at Castlegar and Dec. 8 at Beaver Valley. They return to home ice Dec. 9 against Grand Forks. … Nelson was missing F Logan Wullum, D Zach Morey (upper body) and D Dash Thompson. Wullum served the first of a three-game suspension for gross misconduct during Friday’s game in Grand Forks.