It felt like shelter from a storm that’s lasted nearly two years.
Staff checked vaccine status at the door, and fans dutifully wore their masks, but otherwise the Nelson Leafs’ first home game with fans since March 2020 felt like a time capsule when all anyone at the rink had to worry about was finding parking.
For new Leafs captain Tyler Pisiak, stepping onto the ice with fans back in the stands was, in his words, “weird.” But by the second period, he said, it was just another hockey game.
“It was good to get back out there again.”
It sure was, and everything about it was worth celebrating — except the result.
A wild seven-goal third period led to a scoreless overtime and shootout that ended with Beaver Valley’s Judah Makway using a forehand-backhand deke to beat Nelson goaltender Tenzin Mint and secure a 6-5 win for the Nitehawks on Friday.
Rhett Hamilton scored twice in regulation for the Leafs, who also had singles from Kevin Lawrance, Ryland Mennie and Liam Noble. Mint, meanwhile, stopped 26 shots.
Makway, Joel Smyth, Ethan Smyth, Kaleb Percival and Austin McKenzie replied for the Nitehawks in regulation with goaltender Owen Albers making 26 saves.
Season openers are typically unpredictable, and this one was even moreso considering the time it has been since both teams played a regular-season game. Nelson’s last game was Nov. 20, 2020 during an aborted campaign, while the Nitehawks hadn’t played since March 10, 2020.
Despite that, Leafs head coach Mario DiBella said he thought his team was prepared after winning three-of-four exhibition games. His opinion was understandably different by the end of the game.
“I certainly wasn’t satisfied with their level of compete. I thought that Beaver Valley came to compete and we missed the mark,” he said.
A sloppy first period, in which neither team was able to maintain possession for more than a couple strides, still ended with a goal when Lawrance beat Albers for a 1-0 Nelson lead.
The period ended on a down note for the Leafs though, when defenceman Tyson Lautard was taken down behind the net. He was cradling his right arm and needed help getting off the ice.
Both teams traded goals in the second period.
Percival tied the game on a point shot that lofted over Mint’s shoulder exactly halfway through the period. But with just under two minutes left, Noble had an open lane on the left wing to skate in and beat Albers to put Nelson back up 2-1.
That led to a back-and-forth third period in which both teams appeared to set aside a popular hockey concept called defence.
Nelson and Beaver Valley traded three power-play goals to start the scoring. Ethan Smyth’s goal on the advantage was replied to by Hamilton, only for McKenzie to score another at 9:21 and tie the game at three.
But Hamilton wasn’t done. Just nine seconds after the puck dropped, he took a pass, skated past a Nitehawk and beat a stunned Albers with a wrist shot to regain the lead.
Beaver Valley were undeterred. A nice passing play ended with Makway scoring at 6:33, tying the game at four.
Mennie appeared to put the Leafs in the driver’s seat with less than five minutes left when, on the power play, his point shot sailed past Albers.
Nelson was back on the power play right after, but a poor pass at the blueline led to a turnover and Nitehawks breakaway. Mint turned aside two shots, but couldn’t stop the third by Joel Smyth and it was onto overtime and shootout.
“We weren’t playing well in the D-zone especially, we were cheating on offence more,” said Pisiak. “We just need to tighten it up, I’m sure we’ll work on that kind of stuff in practice.”
Despite the result, and questionable on-ice quality, DiBella said he felt good to coach a hockey game in front of spectators again.
“Who knew 12 months ago, or 18 months when we were in a playoff series against the same Beaver Valley team, that it would be this long to when we were playing again?” he said.
“But it does feel great being in the rink and we’re grateful for the opportunity.”
Leaflets: The Leafs opened the season with six Nelson natives on the roster. F Seamus Boyd, F Rhett Hamilton, F Joe Davidson, D Reid Vulcano and D Bryce Sookro are all locals. … Nelson next hosts the Fernie Ghostriders on Saturday.
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.