The Beaver Valley Nitehawks gave new meaning to the saying, ‘It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’
The Nelson Leafs played determined and disciplined hockey, shutting down the Nitehawks for 59 minutes and 20 seconds and skating to a 3-1 lead in Game 2 of the KIJHL Neil Murdoch Division final. But it was the last 40 seconds that made all the difference, as the Nitehawks stormed back for an impossible 4-3 comeback victory.
“Well, you got to believe,” said Nitehawks assistant coach Jeremy Cominotto. “And I think everyone on the bench believed. Our third period was our best period of the game. All we did is went back to the way we started the game, and just rolled our four lines, and the guys responded.”
Down 3-1, the Nitehawks pulled goalie Tallon Kramer for the extra attacker in the final minute, and B.V. forward Dylan Heppler scored his second of the night on a blast from the high slot with 37 seconds remaining to cut the lead to 3-2.
The Leafs made an attempt at the Hawks’ open cage, but missed, conceding an icing call to give the Hawks one last gasp with just over 20 seconds on the clock. Hawks’ centerman Swanson won the faceoff over to Jaxen Gemmell who sent a pass to Dylan Kent at the top of the circle. With 18 seconds left on the clock, and traffic piling up in front, Kent’s low shot beat a screened Leafs goalie Devin Allen, hit the inside of the post, slid across the goal line to the other post, and settled over the line to tie the game 3-3 and force OT.
“That’s happened before for us,” said Cominotto. “We’ve been in that situation, and practiced that situation before. The key is getting the draw and swinging the puck east-west, and getting it to the net. When you put it on net, anything can happen and fortunately for us it went in.”
The Nitehawks carried its momentum into the extra frame and dominated the 10-minute OT, outshooting the Leafs 6-1. It looked like yet another overtime for the Leafs, but the Nitehawks forced a face off in the Nelson zone with nine seconds to play. The team’s battled for possession and Heppler gained control, sending the puck back to Kent at the point. His shot went wide but bounced off the backboard right to Nolan Percival at the side of the net, and the former Leaf sent a quick shot through the pads of Allen for the overtime winner with just 3.5 seconds to play and a 4-3 Game 2 victory.
“Finishing off a game where we weren’t really in it feels good for the whole team,” said Percival. “I didn’t know what was going on to be honest with you, it came off the back boards, and I just took a whack at it, and somehow it snuck through the goalie, who was good all night, so it was luck.”
The Leafs played textbook hockey against the Nitehawks, in a tight-checking and space-limiting performance that disrupted a normally formidable Hawks offensive flow. Nelson opened the scoring five minutes in when Andy Fitzpatrick circled behind the net and sent a pass to Sam Weber in the slot, whose one-timer beat Kramer high glove side.
Heppler drew B.V. even four minutes later when he settled a bouncing puck, then walked in and deked Allen with a slick backhand- forehand move. Nelson’s power play was firing on all cylinders, and, after a Hawks penalty, the Leafs regained the lead when Dale Howell shovelled in his own rebound at 3:05 of the first period to put Nelson up 2-1.
The Leafs Sawyer Hunt made it 3-1 on another power-play goal, when he walked in from the side of the net and was stopped on his first try, but lifted the rebound over Kramer at 5:14 of the second period. The Leafs outshot the Hawks 22-17 through two periods and stifled B.V.’s big guns, keeping their scoring chances to the perimeter.
“At the end of the day, we have to win one game here to win the series,” said Nelson coach Mario DiBella. “I thought we played extremely well for 59 minutes, and the last minute wasn’t what we wanted. But give Beaver Valley full measure, they’re a really good team, that had the tenacity to tie it late in the third period.”
The Hawks picked up the pace in the third, firing 14 shots at Allen, while Nelson managed just three shots on Kramer. However, the Leafs goalie answered and made a highlight reel save on Percival, when he came across and robbed him with the blocker midway through the period.
But that all changed in the final minute with the goalie pulled, the Nitehawks answered.
“You have to give them credit over there, they played really physical, and put us on our heels, no doubt about it,” said Cominotto. “But we’re a good team, and good teams find a way. We just worked through it, we battled it through it, and by no means are we taking anything away from them, we know what they have over there, we know we could have been just as easily 1-1, but fortunately we found a way to win.”
The Nitehawks outshot the Leafs 39-24 and went 1-for-3 on the power play, while Nelson was 2-for-2. Percival earned the game star for the Nitehawks and Hunt for the Leafs.
The Nitehawks take a 2-0 series lead, as the Neil Murdoch Division final heads to Nelson on Friday with the puck drop at the Nelson Civic Centre at 7 p.m.