The Nelson Leafs wilted during their final game before playoffs, falling to the Castlegar Rebels 4-1 Sunday.
“It was intense game. There gets to be this animosity in inter-division games, because you get to know your opponent. Stuff gets carried over from other games,” said interim head coach Sean Dooley.
The afternoon game was needlessly violent at times, with a number of hard hits and no shortage of physical mayhem going down on the ice. The players cursed loudly at each other and slammed the boards with the butts of their sticks, making a noisy spectacle of their displeasure with a number of referee calls.
However, Nelson only took two minor penalties. Castlegar was assessed five minors before Mike Bhatoa received a misconduct in the third period and Dylan Bowerman was given a major and a game misconduct for clipping.
Matt MacDonald scored the only Leafs goal of the game early on, and though there were a number of solid shots, Rebels goalie Austin Wells consistently foiled their ambitions, puck-wise.
“There were lots of chances, but we just ended up on the wrong side of the score,” said Dooley.
On Friday, Michael Crawford had a hat trick and an assist to lead Nelson to an 8-3 win in Grand Forks. Michael Rand and Matt MacDonald each had a goal and two assists and four other players had four points each.
Next up the Leafs will battle the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in the opening round of the KIJHL playoffs. The series opens Friday and Saturday in Fruitvale before returning to Nelson the following Monday and Tuesday.
“Last year it was Nelson and Beaver Valley neck-and-neck, and then they went on to win the whole thing,” Dooley said. “There’s a whole lot of history between the teams. We respect them and they respect us, but once the puck drops there is no love lost between the two teams. Believe me, it will be a good hard battle.”
The Nitehawks finished 23 points ahead of the Leafs in the standings, although that was partly due to Nelson being docked points for dressing an ineligible player.
Dooley has players reviewing video of the Nitehawks’ previous ice-outings in preparation.
“We know their systems. We know how they attack, how they play defensively in their end. We have access to video, so we’ll be watching our games against Beaver Valley. We’ll take that right into practice, whether it’s working on our penalty kill, or how we play five-on-five defensively. We’ll do that work based on how they play.”
The Nitehawks’ star player is forward Mitch Foyle.
“He’s the main guy we’ll be keeping our eye on,” Dooley said. “He’s been in the league. I coached him myself at one point, so we know him. They’ve got some good defencemen too: Andrew Miller and Walker Sidoni. That’s the line we need to shut down. They lost a lot of guys when they won the championship, but they’re still a really strong team.”
Though there have been some behavioural issues with Leafs players throughout the season, Dooley said the players are now getting serious about their long-term hockey ambitions.
“Any year I’ve ever been involved as a player or as a coach, there’s always been one or two guys who bend the rules. But they’ve been fine now, no issues. Certain things we couldn’t condone, like showing up late. But that’s all in the past.”
Dooley said fans can expect some riveting action on the ice.
“Any fans who know the KIJHL know that anytime Nelson and Beaver Valley play it’s going to be exciting. They always raise their game that little bit more. There’s so much talent on both teams. So there will be lots of hitting, lots of goals and from a fan perspective you’re never going to leave the rink unsatisfied. We’re talking awesome hockey.”
LEAFLETS: Nelson finished the season at .500, with a record of 23-23-2-4, although six losses were defaults resulting from the use of uncarded players … Robson Cramer topped the Leafs with 39 assists and 58 points on the season, good for 14th overall in the KIJHL scoring race. Rayce Miller was Nelson’s top sniper with 27 goals … The other first-round Neil Murdoch division series will see Castlegar play Spokane … Osoyoos won the league title with 87 points and an .837 winning percentage. Fernie was second with 78 points and Beaver Valley was third with 75 … Kimberley enters the playoffs as the league’s hottest team, winners of ten straight … The start of the playoffs means the return of Leafs head coach Dave McLellan, suspended following the above-mentioned snafu.