Beaver Valley Nitehawks backup goaltender Liam Coulter is making life difficult for the Hawks’ coaching staff.
But, it is a problem any team in the league would like to have. Since Nitehawks starter Owen Sikkes suffered an injury, B.V. backup Coulter has stepped in and played brilliant hockey, winning back-to-back games over the Castlegar Rebels that included a 34 save performance in a 3-1 victory Tuesday night at the Hawks nest, following a 4-3 overtime win in Castlegar Saturday.
“Liam’s played phenomenal since Owen’s been out,” said Nitehawks assistant coach Jeremy Cominotto. “He’s stepped right in like a number-1 guy, which we knew he would and we knew he could. He’s been absolutely great for us, he keeps us in every game, and really that’s all you can ask.”
Buoyed by Coulter’s heroics, the Hawks took a 1-1 tie into the third period, and capitalized on the power play when Evan Gorman took a pass from Tommie McConnachie at the point and stepped into a slap shot, burying it blocker side on Rebels goalie Curt Doyle for what proved to be the game winner at 13:56.
“It’s a pretty gutsy effort going in with 10 forwards, and we needed guys to step up,” said Cominotto. “We’re missing a few of our top guys and team leaders, so I mean it speaks volumes for the guys we had in the lineup.”
The victory was significant for a Hawks team that is missing injured captain Sam Swanson, top-end forwards Dylan Heppler (illness), Jaxen Gemmell (injury), and Aiden Jenner (injury), and starting goaltender Sikkes.
“It’s not even funny anymore,” said Cominotto. “At first it may have been a little bit humorous, but we’re getting close to having a full 20 guys in the lineup without any APs. It’s going to take a bit, but I think we’ll be healthy for the playoffs, and, hopefully, we hit our stride at the right time and defend our championship.”
Beaver Valley opened the scoring with 2:45 left in the first period, when Brad Ross gained the blue line and made a cross-ice pass to Morgan Peace, who spun around the Rebels D-man and sent a perfect backhand pass back to Ross. The Trail native made no mistake lifting the puck into the top corner for a 1-0 B.V. lead.
After Hawks defenceman Kevan McBean was sent off for tripping with two minutes remaining, Castlegar answered. The Hawks fended off the Rebels attack for the first minute, but Brady Daniels sent a cross-crease pass to Tanner Costa for the tap in to tie it with 45 seconds on the clock.
The Rebels kept the momentum going into the second, dominating the middle period and outshooting the Hawks 16-5. However, Coulter was particularly huge on the penalty kill and particularly against Costa. With the Hawks shorthanded, Coulter slid over and stopped a one-timer from Costa at the hash mark, then robbed him moments later on the doorstep, before stymying the Castlegar sharpshooter on a breakaway.
With B.V. leading 2-1, the Rebels pulled their goalie for an extra attacker with 1:19 to play; but Hawks forward Nolan Percival made a great effort to break up the play at his own blue line, beat the defenceman to the puck and send it into the Castlegar zone, where Aidan Browell snapped it into the open net with 13 seconds remaining for the 3-1 victory.
“Just stay the course, we had a game plan and we’re sticking to it for the most part,” said Cominotto. “We got away from it a bit in the second period, but we killed the penalties we needed to kill, and eventually got our turn and we put one in.”
The Rebels outshot the Nitehawks 35-25 with both goalies, Coulter and Doyle, earning the Game Star for their respective teams. The Hawks went 1-for-3 on the power play, the Rebels 1-for-4.
Since taking over the crease Dec. 28, the 18-year-old Calgary native is 3-2 and has allowed just nine goals in five games for a 1.80 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage. Coulter’s only two losses were 1-0 and 2-1 setbacks to the Neil Murdoch Division leading Nelson Leafs. Coulter has proven a reliable and composed alternate to the steady and eminently capable Sikkes, who is expected back at the end of January. His fine play will likely make the starting decisions harder come February, and although injuries have plagued the Hawks for most of the season, the coaches remain optimistic.
“We’re hoping to have our full roster healthy, even though we don’t want to make decisions where we have to sit healthy players in the stands, it would be a drastic change for us,” said Cominotto. “Just having Sam (Swanson) healthy, getting Aiden Jenner back, and Gemmell healthy, it’s a huge boost for our lineup. We just have to make sure that when they are ready to go, we’re hitting our stride.”
At 19-3-2-1, Beaver Valley remains 12 points back of Castlegar in third place in the Neil Murdoch Division, but comfortably ahead of the 12-21-1-2 Grand Forks Border Bruins fighting for the fourth and final playoff spot with Spokane and lead the Braves by just three points.
The Nitehawks face off against the Border Bruins in Grand Forks on Thursday, then have the weekend off as the KIJHL breaks for the Prospects Game in Kelowna on Saturday.