A well-rested Beaver Valley Nitehawks team skated to a 5-4 Game-1 victory over the Nelson Leafs in the KIJHL Neil Murdoch Division final on Tuesday at the Hawks Nest.
Nitehawks forward Dylan Heppler scored what proved to be the winning goal at 17:45 of the third period and assisted on another to give the Hawks the early series lead against the rival Leafs. Heppler skated over the blue line, dropped the puck to a trailing Nolan Percival, and broke to the net. The former Leaf returned the pass to Heppler, who deftly tipped it through the pads of Devin Allen for a 5-3 Nitehawks lead.
Despite the victory, Nitehawks coach and GM Terry Jones recognizes the effects of the week-long layoff the Nitehawks enjoyed after sweeping the Grand Forks Border Bruins on Feb. 28.
“I thought we were rusty defensively. As a five-man unit we weren’t stopping and starting, our habits weren’t great in the d-zone. It was good enough, but I think we have some areas to shore up.”
The opening match of the division final pitched a third-seed Nelson team, riding a high after an upset victory over second-seed Castlegar Rebels, face off against a Nitehawks team that won the KIJHL regular season title and the season series 5-2 versus the Leafs. While the Hawks swept the Border Bruins in round 1, Nelson endured a marathon series agains the Rebels that was settled in Game 6 on Friday, and saw four of those playoff games go to overtime.
“I think coming off a very emotional six-game series with 27 periods played, there wasn’t much left in the tank,” said Nelson coach Mario DiBella. “We had some mental lapses early in the game, but we rebounded from that, and I thought we came on strong and gave them a game tonight.”
The Hawks came out flying in the first period, and a relentless forecheck combined with quick puck movement resulted in a 2-0 lead less than five minutes in.
Blake Sidoni sent Sam Swanson and Mitch Foyle in on a 2-on-1, and Foyle ripped a perfect Swanson pass off the cross bar for a 1-0 Hawks lead at 16:28. Less than a minute later, Sidoni carried a puck in deep, and dished to Jaxen Gemmell who was stopped by the Leafs goalie, but Tyler Hartman shovelled in the rebound for his fourth of the playoffs.
“It wasn’t a full 60 minutes,” said Hartman after the match. “But we’ve won dirty before, and won those kind of games. We’ll take any win – a win’s a win.”
B.V. looked poised to run away with the game, but Nelson regained its footing after an interference penalty to Tyler Ghirardosi slowed the Hawks momentum. Nelson capitalized on the ensuing power play with Logan Wullum gathering a loose puck in the slot and firing it by screened Hawks goalie Tallon Kramer at 7:49.
Nelson continued to push back and 22 seconds later an aggressive forecheck by Dale Howell forced the puck out to Nicholas Wihak, who lifted it over Kramer at the near post to tie it.
B.V.’s Ryan Terpsma put the Hawks up 3-2 , wiring a slap shot from the point that beat Allen stick side, but Nelson replied with another power play goal with 2:32 to play in the opening frame. The Leafs worked the puck down low and a shot from a bad angle bounced in the air and off Wihak, parked at the edge of the crease, and past Kramer to tie the game at three.
“We got up and had a great start, were finishing checks, and I thought we actually had a chance to score three or four goals,” said Jones. “But their goalie made a couple great saves to keep them in it and then poor discipline cost us momentum, and it happened a couple times.”
The Hawks outshot the Leafs 11-8 in the wild first frame.
The second period saw both defensive units tighten their respective belts, but not before Beaver Valley took the lead at 17:05. Foyle found Ghirardosi breaking down the left wing, and the Montrose native beat a sprawling Allen with a wrister into the yawning cage.
Both teams traded chances but Allen and Kramer came up with a series of big saves to keep it a one-goal game and the crowd on the edge of their seats at the end of two.
Heppler scored his second of the playoffs just 2:15 into the final stanza to give the Hawks the two-goal lead and it stayed that way until the dying seconds.
The Leafs pulled their goalie in the final minute, and Nelson forward Sawyer Hunt beat Kramer with a quick low shot from the slot with just 12 seconds remaining to draw the Leafs within one, but the seconds ticked off to end the game, 5-4.
“Beaver Valley came out flying, and give them full measure for their win,” said DiBella. “But we stuck with them and gave them a game, and we’ll be better next game.”
The Nitehawks outshot the Leafs 27-24 and were 0-for-4 on the power play while Nelson went 2-for-2. Terpsma earned player of the game for the Nitehawks, and Wihak for the Leafs.
“We know it’s going to be tough, and they’re not going to give an inch,” said Jones. “It’s playoffs and it’s the division finals and it’s always tough. Give them credit, they battled hard tonight, their goalie played great kept them in it, and their power play was wicked, but we have to be better in certain areas, and that’s what the series is about.”
Game 2 goes in Beaver Valley with the puck drop at 7 p.m. tonight (Wednesday).