A sliver of hope now exists for the Castlegar Rebels, and the Nelson Leafs have only themselves to blame.
The Rebels scored six unanswered goals, five of which came in the first period, en route to a 6-2 statement win in Castlegar on Saturday.
The victory kept the Rebels’ season alive for the time being. They still trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, but have the advantage of having embarrassed the Leafs ahead of Game 5 in Nelson on Monday.
“They’re life was on the line tonight and they were ready, and we weren’t,” said Leafs defenceman Zach Morey.
That’s an understatement.
The Leafs knew going into the game how important it was to put Castlegar away. They had a 3-0 series lead in the first round against Grand Forks and ended up needing seven games to advance.
The Leafs had looked like a team with championship aspirations in the first three games against Castlegar, but when the moment to deliver the final blow came Saturday, they blinked.
Nelson head coach Mario DiBella was, predictably, frustrated by his team’s no-show.
“I’m not sure if lessons are that hard that they can’t take them from the first series against Grand Forks where you’re in a position where you can eliminate the other team and you choose to think that somehow it’s going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy,” said DiBella.
“There’s a passionate group of players on the other bench and obviously they aren’t ready to have their season end and they’re going to come out and fight and do what it takes to preserve their season.”
Ryan Piva and Justin Podgorenko each scored for the Leafs. Josh Williams allowed three goals on nine shots before being replaced by Caiden Kreitz, who gave up three more goals on 16 shots.
Brady Daniels and Chris Breese each scored twice, while Brandon Costa and Ed Lindsey also scored for Castlegar. Tanner Douglas meanwhile made his first start of the series for the Rebels and finished with 36 saves.
Bizarrely, Game 4 started goal for goal the same way Game 3 did.
Just as they did Friday, the Rebels got on the scoreboard on their first shot of the game.
Costa skated in on Williams’ glove-side and took a shot. The Nelson goaltender made the initial save but couldn’t handle the puck and it cross the line to give Castlegar a 1-0 advantage.
Then, in another replay of Game 3, Daniels put the the Rebels up 2-0 on the second shot of the contest. As a Leafs’ power play was ending, Daniels broke out alone after swiping the puck from Michael LeNoury, put a nice deke on Williams and skated back to the bench with a goal.
Game 4 deviated from the script shortly after, and entirely in Castlegar’s favour.
First, Breese scored on a screened shot to make it 3-0. That ended Williams’ night less than 10 minutes into regulation.
“I thought Josh was left out to dry,” said DiBella. “The three goals he was scored on were two breakaways and a turnover, so really we just have to be better as a team if we want to finish Castlegar because they’re not going to go away.”
Then about three minutes later, Daniels scored his second when he took a pass to the side of the net and backhanded a shot past Kreitz.
That gave the Rebels four goals on six shots, and sent a message to Nelson that it would be a very long night.
“We’re not putting anything on the tendies tonight,” said Nelson forward Logan Wullum. “It was mostly all our players’ faults. We didn’t come out hot, we didn’t support them. That’s the reason. We’ve got to support our tendies so that kind of stuff doesn’t happen. Not blaming anything on those guys.”
It got worse before the period ended.
Leafs forward Nicholas Wihak was just a few steps out of the penalty box when the Rebels finished off a nice passing play that ended with Breese scoring his second of the game at 2:27.
Castlegar added another just two minutes into the second period. Lindsey took a cross-ice pass and fired a shot that Kreitz couldn’t stop with his pads, increasing the lead to 6-0.
Nelson finally — finally! — got a goal halfway through the frame.
Moments after a T.V. timeout, Sawyer Hunt found Piva for a goal that elicited a big cheer from the Leafs contingent of fans in the bleachers, but did little to stoke Nelson’s momentum.
There was little doubt of the result, but the game went on for a third period anyway.
Nelson did score, albeit on a shot even the goal-scorer would have to admit was a fluke. Podgorenko took the puck in the neutral zone, turned and whipped it back at a confused Douglas who couldn’t handle the shot.
But there were no miracles comebacks to end a game the Leafs will want to leave in the past. When asked what happens next for Nelson, Morey was succinct.
“We win on Monday,” he said. “That’s what happens next.”
Leaflets: Nelson D Dash Thompson returned to the lineup, but F Ryan Cooper remained out. F Jackson Zimmermann was also not in the lineup. … The game started over an hour late after a Selkirk Saints playoff game went into overtime.