The Neil Murdoch Division regular-season title is going down to the wire.
The Nelson Leafs made assurance of that on Saturday when they defeated the Beaver Valley Nitehawks 3-1 in Nelson.
The victory gives the Leafs a tenuous one-point lead on the 28-11-3-4 Hawks in the race for first in the Murdoch Division standings. B.V. still holds a game in hand, but will have to find a way to beat the Leafs, a team they’ve lost all four games to this season, in two of their three final games this week.
“I think it (first place) is important only because we want to play well,” said Nitehawks head coach Terry Jones. “We want to get our game back together heading into playoffs. We have three games left, and we want to start getting our game back to where we want it to be. First place is nice, it’s a nice feather in your cap, but first place means nothing if you’re not playing well.”
The Leafs stormed out to a 2-0 first period lead on goals from Bryden Pow and Reid Wilson, outshooting the Hawks 15-8 in the period.
“On Saturday, I felt we lost the game in the first period,” said Jones. “We just came out and they came out super strong, with lots of speed and intensity, and we didn’t. We were on our heels, and it could have been a lot worse, they outshot us badly.”
Brandon Costa made it 3-0 Leafs with 7:03 to play in the middle frame, before Nitehawks d-man Brock Wallace scored on a power play, finishing a setup from Bradley Ross and Quaid Anderson for what stood as the 3-1 final.
“They soundly outplayed us in the first period but after that we redeemed our composure a little bit, but not enough. Their defence and goaltending played well, so full marks for them to win.”
Costa and former Beaver Valley Nitehawks forward Aiden Jenner are big additions to the Leafs, both signed by Leafs coach Mario DiBella at the Jan. 10 deadline. Nelson has won eight straight, and Costa has tallied five goals and eight points in that stretch, while Jenner, who originally committed to play for Selkirk College this season, had two goals in his debut versus Creston Friday, before facing off against his old team Saturday.
“I’m just going out there and playing for fun, honestly,” Jenner told the Nelson Star. “I don’t really think about it too much. It’s weird for sure, seeing a team you played for, playing against them. But that doesn’t really bother me too much.”
For his part, DiBella was excited to have the two players he signed finally on the ice.
“They’re both high quality players and they’re good people as well. It’s just a pleasure to have both of them wearing the green and white.”
Beaver Valley has faced its share of adversity this season with injuries and illnesses, including season-ending fractures to Marcus McEachern and Jesse Ihas. Zachary Park and Ethan Jang are also still out, and more recently Ryan McDonald and Jarred Macasso have been bitten hard by the injury bug.
The Hawks received some consolation, and were able to resign Luke Woodrow who will help bolster the Hawks back end.
The Nitehawks face off against the Leafs on Thursday night and can clinch first place with a victory and a win against the Castlegar Rebels on Friday for a three-point lead heading into their final game against the Leafs on Saturday.
“I still don’t think that we’ve reached our highest level that we can this year. So as we move towards practice this week, we want to get to that point where we feel good about our game.
“It doesn’t matter where you finish in terms of the standings. I’ve learned that over time, is that we finish first sometimes and get knocked out because you lose your momentum, you lose your team confidence, and that’s the thing, we have to approach our team and build that confidence.”
The 20-23-2-4 Spokane Braves clinched the third seed in the division while Castlegar beat out the Grand Forks Border Bruins for the fourth and final seed, following two key wins over Creston, 4-1, and the Bruins, 6-3, on the weekend.
The Nitehawks have a favourable 4-1 record against Castlegar and a 4-1-1-0 record against the Braves, but Jones isn’t about to take either team lightly. With just two wins in five games in February, the Nitehawks will look to finish strong, and hit the playoffs on a high note regardless of placing or opponent.
“No matter if we play Spokane or Castlegar, if we’re not playing like we can, I think the division is up for grabs for anybody. To me the only advantage of playing Castlegar to Spokane is that Castlegar is 20 minutes away and Spokane is two-and-a-half hours away. I think both teams are dangerous, both teams are tough, but not having to drive two-and-a-half hours is the only advantage.”
Beaver Valley hosts the Nelson Leafs at 7 p.m. on Thursday for their final home game of the regular season, and will finish the season on the road, with a game Friday in Castlegar and on Saturday in Nelson.