It is the series West Kootenay hockey fans have been waiting for, as, arguably, two of the top teams in the KIJHL go head-to-head tonight at the Nelson Civic Centre.
The teams split their regular-season matchups 4-4, with the Murdoch division regular-season title decided 2-1 in overtime in the final game of the season. After 52 games the teams had the same number of wins, 38, were separated by a single point, and while Nelson scored 18 more goals, the Nitehawk’s allowed 18 fewer, so that both teams finished with identical plus-86 goal differentials.
It can’t get much closer than that.
“We expect a long, tough series and obviously there’s a lot riding on it for us (the Nitehawks), and not as much for them because they are in the Cyclone, but for us, we know we have to win to keep playing,” said Nitehawks’ head coach and GM Terry Jones. “It’s a different season now, and I’m hoping our guys bring their A-game every night.”
The Nitehawks, on the surface, look to have an advantage. Nelson had a tougher series against the Spokane Braves who took the Leafs to Game 6, while the Hawks dispatched the Rebels in four straight. Also, Nelson, as hosts, has already secured a spot in the Cyclone Taylor provincial championship, and may be a little less hungry for the Neil Murdoch division final, but coach Jones isn’t buying it.
“I know the longer series with Spokane, it does add up, I know that you can get an injury or two, and it is fatiguing . . . but I don’t know there is an advantage. I think that they have enough pride in their veteran guys on their team to know that they just want to keep playing, and they don’t want to get a backdoor into the Cyclone.”
The Leafs’ have been without leading scorer Jamie Vlanich and starting goalie Brad Rebagliati through the entire series versus the Braves due to injury. They also lost the services of backup goaltender Adam Maida who suffered an injury in Game 5. AP Jason Mailhiot from the Major Midget Kootenay Ice filled in for the final two matches, and it is unknown whether the trio will return to the Leafs line up for Game 1 tonight.
“You want everybody in the line up, but that’s adversity and that’s something that every team is going to go through in the playoffs,” Leafs forward Travis Wellman told the Nelson Star. “If you’re going to make a run, you have to fight through it.”
The Nitehawks also suffered an unexpected loss. Beaver Valley will be without the services of Dallas Calvin on Friday. The Nitehawks second-leading scorer played for the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL in its 4-1 win over West Kelowna Wednesday, however, he received a game misconduct for kneeing and, according to Hockey Canada rules, will have to sit out Game 1 versus Nelson tonght.
He will return for Game 2 Saturday. Other than the suspension, the Nitehawks are going into the division-final series with a full lineup.
“Our whole roster is healthy, we’ve got some A.P.’s that we’ve added to our team, so we’re totally healthy and ready to go,” said Jones.
Leafs’ forward Carson Willans leads all playoff scoring with three goals and eight assists in six games, followed by the Nitehawks’ Calvin who is 4-5-9 in four matches. Yet, it will be a differenct series against Nelson, and one that might come down to special teams.
“I think the most important key is our discipline and their power play. We have to make sure when we go to angle and finish somebody we have our hands down and sticks down, and just make it a good solid check and not a penalty,” said Jones. “They are obviously very skilled and talented and if you give them the opportunity they are going to score. If you look at the TSN factor of the series, our discipline is the key point.”
B.V. Was solid on the penalty kill against Castlegar with a 95.83 per cent kill ratio, while scoring on 6-of-24 power-play opportunities.The Leafs power play struggled in the first five games going 2-for-22 but turned it around on Tuesday going 5-for-12 on the PP versus Spokanee in the 7-2 victory.
“I know we’ve been through this all year and have had the odd flare up, but by in large I think our focus has been great, and some of the guys that tend to lose their cool have been great.”
Games 1 and 2 go at the Nelson Rec Complex, while Games 3 and 4 go at B.V. Arena at 7 p.m.
Round 2 is set to hit the ice across the KIJHL with Creston taking on Kimberley for the Eddie Mountain division title. The Okanagan division fourth-seed, the North Okanagan Knights, took out the number-one seed Summerland Steam with a 5-3 victory in Game 7 Wednesday, and will play third seed Osoyoos Coyotes in the Okanagan division final, while the Kamloops Storm will face the 100-Mile House Wranglers in the Doug Birks division final.