When he scored his first goal of the game, Justin Podgorenko leapt in the glass and roared into his gloves.
No, the season wouldn’t end now. They wouldn’t lose this series, they wouldn’t get run out of their rink, they wouldn’t break after blowing a 3-0 series lead to a tenacious opponent.
“Tonight it was do or die for us,” said Podgorenko, “and we didn’t want to die.”
Podgorenko, a fourth-line player, had the best game of his life Saturday. He scored two goals — one a short-handed breakaway and the other on a turnover — as the Leafs eliminated the Grand Forks Border Bruins in Game 7 with a 4-2 win.
The Leafs had spent the previous three games unravelling, and Grand Forks came to Nelson with a big entourage of fans and all the momentum. It felt like an upset waiting to happen, until Podgorenko took over.
“He was like a house on fire,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella. “He was determined that that Grand Forks team was not going to take our sticks away from us.”
Michael LeNoury and Nicholas Wihak also scored, and Josh Williams finished with just 15 saves as Nelson overwhelmed the upstart Border Bruins when it mattered.
The Leafs will next face the Castlegar Rebels, with Game 1 set for Tuesday at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Grand Forks, which had finished fourth in the Neil Murdoch Division, looked to be making some magic on the heels of three straight wins to claw back from the brink. Podgorenko and company put a pin in that when it mattered.
“They gave us a run for our money for sure,” said Podgorenko. “Little scared but it’s nice that we pulled through. It doesn’t matter if we won it in four or seven. It’s still a win [and we’re] moving on.”
Reese Tambellini and Trey Mason replied for the Border Bruins, with Ross King turning aside 39 shots.
Grand Forks head coach Emery Olauson said the series revealed plenty about his team’s character.
“You hate to see series and seasons end but I’m proud of the guys,” said Olauson. “To a man, everyone just showed up and kept working and we got ourselves back in the series and it was really fun to watch.”
Nelson dominated the early play but the Border Bruins struck first.
Brent Headon was in the box for interference when Tambellini collected the puck behind the net and wrapped it around the post for a 1-0 lead that had a big contingent of Grand Forks fans roaring.
Only a minute later Ryan Piva looked to have the equalizer but the net was just off its moorings and the goal was quickly waved off.
The Leafs persisted, outshooting the visitors 17-7 in the first period without a goal to show for it.
Nelson finally broke through in the second, although the celebration was short-lived.
As the seconds of a Leafs penalty kill trickled down, Podgorenko swiped the puck and completed a breakaway goal with an emphatic jump into the boards.
The Border Bruins waited less than a minute however to re-establish their lead. A shot forced Williams to the ice for the initial save, and Mason was positioned for the rebound goal.
But Nelson didn’t fold, and as the period came to an end the team roared back with two goals in less than a minute.
First came the tying goal by LeNoury, who fired a point shot with the Leafs on the power play that beat King. Then only 52 seconds later, Podgorenko picked up a Grand Forks turnover and snapped a shot to give Nelson a 3-2 lead.
That set up the most important third period of the season for both teams.
A big hit triggered a tense penalty kill for the Leafs. Jackson Zimmermann laid a massive open-ice shot on Riley Smoler that was called for interference, much to the displeasure of the crowd. The Border Bruins pressed, but couldn’t find an opening on Williams.
The Leafs put a dagger in the Border Bruins on their 40th shot of the game. Jack Karran carried the puck into the zone and backhanded a shot off King. A trailing Wihak batted the puck in, which doubled the Leafs’ lead and eventually sent a very relieved team onto the next round.
Williams, playing in his final season of junior hockey, later joked he’d never played in a Game 7 before. He said the Leafs would make sure the lessons of round one would be remembered going forward.
“We now know you can’t just get up on a series and cruise control it,” said Williams. “We have to play every game and hopefully we learn from it and do that next series.”