If a puck flies an inch lower, the Nelson Leafs are leaping onto the ice, beer is being spilt in the stands and plans start being made for an extended series.
But physics wasn’t on the Leafs’ side Friday. Sawyer Hunt zipped a pass to Dale Howell late in the third period that was tipped just high enough it ricocheted off the crossbar.
“Obviously it would have been nice if that bounce went our way. But that’s hockey,” said Howell.
“I mean, we would have liked to finish it in 60 minutes, we couldn’t get it done in overtime, but whenever you give a team like that a chance to win a game, they are obviously a great team.”
That shot in the dying minutes of the third period, it turned out, was the closest Nelson would come to winning Game 3.
Beaver Valley forward Sam Swanson scored in double overtime to give the Nitehawks a 3-2 win and, crucially, a 3-0 series lead.
Swanson capitalized on a turnover in the slot with a quick shot that put Nelson’s rival on the edge of its second series sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in Nelson.
Hunt and Howell each scored for the Leafs, while Devin Allen made 28 saves in front of 780 fans at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Blake Sidoni and Damon Kramer also scored for the Nitehawks and Tallon Kramer stopped 29 shots.
The 60-minute hockey game is a cliched ideal for every player. But after yet another excruciatingly close loss, the Leafs were left to examine the details for answers. A bad shift here, a poor pass there, and that was all it seemed to take for the Nitehawks to score.
“They are a hard working team,” said Leafs forward Logan Wullum. “We have to match their effort. If we let up one shift they’re going to put it in the back of the net. We saw that in the last two games.
“If we have all good shifts, a full 60 minutes, we’re definitely going to come out on top. It’s just the way the game works to be honest.”
Nitehawks head coach Terry Jones said the game was closer than the scoreboard let on.
“It’s a tight game and I certainly never felt the game was in hand,” said Jones. “I felt we started to play better, we started to get our game going, but Nelson was resilient. They played hard, their goalie played great. It’s simple, effective hockey and they made us work for it.
“The one thing is we did wear them down a little bit and we were able to get a little more offensive zone time, and that’s a benefit for us.”
Nelson played Game 3 without fear of the KIJHL’s best regular season team. What that meant practically was a lot of aggression, forechecking and getting in Kramer’s face.
A Nitehawks turnover led to the Leafs taking the lead six minutes into the game. Howell took possession on the left wing, catching the visitors with just one defenceman between him and Hunt. He completed the pass and Hunt finished the play to put Nelson up 1-0.
But Kramer was game from the opening faceoff. The Beaver Valley star goalie was at his best on a late play in which Sam Weber found Ryan Piva, whose deke was barely denied by Kramer.
Beaver Valley took over in the second period with two goals in two minutes.
First, Kramer deked Allen into the ice for a goal at 7:19. That was followed by Sidoni, who opted for a snapshot as he entered the Leafs’ zone with a defender in front of him. That shot surprised a screened Allen, who was too slow getting his blocker up.
Leafs head coach Mario DiBella thought his team backed off in the second when they should have kept pushing.
“I thought that they came out prepared, mentally focused and played hard for the majority of the game,” he said. “We had a little lapse in the second period, which seems to be a common theme for us where a shift or two and a team who has only lost five games in a year is going to capitalize on those opportunities.”
Howell lifted Leafs fans out of their seats shortly after the second intermission. He wound up and fired a nasty slapshot that beat Kramer clean to tie the game.
The Nitehawks dominated possession in the third, yet the Leafs held the line. Allen did his part, especially so with five minutes left when he swung backwards to bat a sure goal out of the air with his glove.
Not that anyone will remember that spectacular save Saturday morning. Despite the close games, the Leafs appear to need a miracle now to come back against the Nitehawks.
Or maybe, according to Wullum, the Leafs just need that mythical 60 minutes of hockey.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” he said.