The Beaver Valley Nitehawks provided fans with a promising preview of things to come in a gritty victory over the Castlegar Rebels on Tuesday at the B.V. Arena.
The Nitehawks closed out their extensive exhibition schedule with a character 2-1 win over their Murdoch division rivals, in a game rife with penalties and physical play, but a good test for the 11 rookies in the line up.
“Last year was a good run, we did quite well and we’re looking forward to the challenge of doing it again this year,” said Hawks captain Sam Swanson, who is skating in his fifth season with the team. “Every game, everyone is getting better, individually and as a group and it’s looking pretty promising so far, so I’m excited to see what we can do this year.”
Nitehawk veteran Jaxen Gemmell scored twice in a 25 second span in the middle frame to give the Hawks a 2-0 lead, and pace B.V. to its second win of the preseason, after falling 2-1 to the Rebels in Castlegar on Sunday.
B.V. went 2-3-1 in exhibition play, but carried a full complement of young players and got a good look at future Nitehawks.
“It’s been a busy six games in seven nights,” said Nitehawks assistant coach Bill Birks. “We’ve seen lots of good young kids, lots of local kids that got a little sniff of playing, and played really well. They’re definitely on the right track to becoming a Nitehawk one day and hopefully a Smoke Eater and beyond that. We’re pretty much down to our team right now, give or take a couple.”
Chemistry is still evolving early in the season, but the Nitehawks speed generated a handful of good scoring chances in the first period, but was unable to beat Jason Mailhiot who returned to the Rebels after being traded to the Princeton Posse last season. Mailhiot stopped 42 shots in the Rebels previous win, and was sharp again Tuesday.
“They have a lot of veteran guys back like we do,” said Birks. “Their goaltending was good … we hit him lots but we had lots of scoring chances, lots of shots. Now we can get into some practice time, and get some lines set, some systems and power-plays going and hopefully repeat.”
The Nitehawks broke the scoreless tie in the middle frame when Gemmell jumped on a Nolan Pervival rebound, and slid it under the sprawling netminder. Less than 30 seconds later, Dylan Heppler saucered a pretty pass to Gemmell in the slot and the Calgary native wristed it top corner for the 2-0 lead.
Castlegar replied five minutes later when Bo Cornell shovelled in a rebound over Owen Sikkes to round out the scoring.
Following the match, the Nitehawks coach was particularly impressed with the exhibition play of returning goalie Sikkes, and rookie goalies Liam Coulter and Jake Kemp, who will return to the Major Midget Kootenay Ice. Kemp and Coulter were outstanding in a 0-0 tie with Grand Forks Saturday, when they split duties.
“They played phenomenal the whole camp, really the whole exhibition series,” said Birks. “We haven’t scored many goals, and they haven’t let many in, so it’s good. Owen’s going to be a steady backbone, and learned a lot from (Tallon) Kramer last year, and Liam Coulter is a great kid who wants to learn, and he had a great exhibition camp.”
The Nitehawks are still wanting on defence with last year’s d-men Karsten Jang and Jake Yuris signed with the Trail Smoke Eaters, Kevan McBean sticking with the Merritt Centennials, and Dylan Kent still with the Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“Hopefully for them they stay there, they deserve it,” said Birks. “But if not, worse case scenario, they have a pretty good place to come back to.”
In the meantime, regular forwards Swanson and Percival have been holding up the backend, playing defence through most exhibition matches. And with just Connor Seib, Evan Gorman, and rookie 16-year-old Darian Fuller remaining, Swanson and Percival will likely open the regular season on the point.
“We’re a little bit short on the back end,” said Birks. “But Percy and Swanny fill in and they filled in last year when we had injuries and did a great job and I have no doubt they’ll do a great job this year.”
No player bleeds Nitehawk blue more than Swanson, who has stayed with the team throughout his junior career despite opportunities to move on to Junior A. His dedication and leadership led the Hawks to the Cyclone Taylor Cup last season and his commitment to the community is all but unprecedented.
“I absolutely love it here,” said Swanson. “It’s the best place to play in Western Canada. A couple years ago I definitely could have tried a couple places probably, but at the end of the day, this is home and this is where I want to be. There’s nothing like playing in front of these fans, and wearing this sweater. It’s something special to me and something I hold very close to my heart.”
The Nitehawks open their season in Nelson on Friday, and return to the Hawks Nest on Saturday when they host the Fernie Ghostriders at 7:30 p.m.
Nitehawks Notes:The Nitehawks and Trail Smoke Eaters coordinated their schedules this season so no games will overlap. Friday fans can enjoy the Smokies home opener at the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m. and the Nitehawks on Saturday in Beaver Valley.