Nitehawks save their best for last; beat Leafs on road to win Murdoch division title

The Beaver Valley Nitehawks are Neil Murdoch Division champions after beating the Nelson Leafs 4-2 on Saturday in Nelson.

The Nitehawks erased a 2-1 deficit, scoring three times in the third period, including the game winner by Simon Nemethy, to beat the Leafs for the first time this season.

“It’s always good to get a win against division rivals in their rink,” said Nitehawks G.M. Jamie Cominotto. “Especially in games with such meaning. It’s nice to win the division, but at the same time, the real work starts now.”

In an intense back-and-forth matchup, and the game tied at two, the Nitehawks went on a powerplay when Nelson’s Bryden Pow was called for slashing late in the third period. Nathan Ingram and Brad Ross worked the puck to Nemethy who backhanded it past Leafs goalie Jack Violette for a 3-2 lead with 4:30 remaining in regulation.

The timely win broke a tie atop the division between the teams, giving the Nitehawks a two-point edge in their final game of the season.

Nitehawks veteran leader Angus Amadio is in his final year with the Hawks and winning the last game against their bitter rival was a fitting way to wrap up his KIJHL season.

“The win was really satisfying,” said Amadio. “Especially from a team perspective, the whole team coming together and showing what we could do and what we’re made of. I was really impressed by everyone’s play.”

The eight-time KIJHL champions will now face the Castlegar Rebels in the first round of the Murdoch Division playoffs, while Nelson will take on the third seed Spokane Braves.

The Nitehawks had a prime opportunity to put the Leafs out of contention when they hosted Nelson at the Hawks Nest on Thursday. However, Nelson came back from a 3-2 deficit to win 4-3 in overtime, despite a dominating performance through two periods by the Nitehawks.

“It’s probably safe to say we played a better game on Thursday,” said Cominotto. “Then coming back against Castlegar and finding a way to win and putting ourselves in the position to win the division on Saturday was great. These guys really stepped up.”

B.V. beat the Rebels on Friday in Castlegar, 4-1, to setup the must-win matchup in Nelson. But few held much hope for the Hawks, who were looking for their first win against the Leafs this season.

The Nitehawks jumped out to a quick start with Brock Wallace scoring just 81 seconds into the first period at the Nelson Civic Arena.

The ice tilted decidely in the Leafs favour in the second period, as the Leafs enjoyed four power-play chances, and outshot B.V. 19-8. Alex Erichuk put Nelson on the board, tying the game at 9:23 and Reid Wilson netted his 31st goal of the season on the power play to give the Leafs a 2-1 lead at 4:51.

Nitehawks goalie Hunter Young kept his team in the game, stopping Brandon Costa on a breakaway late in the second, and stymied the Leafs on several chances in the third.

“After the second period that we had, these guys really stepped up in the third and finished strong.”

Hawks leading scorer, Ross, scored his 37th of the season on a power play goal at 8:12 to tie the game at 2-2, before Nemethy notched his 16th tally for the game winner. Nolan Corrado fired one into an empty net with 10 seconds to play for the 4-2 final.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Nitehawks were down to 12 players, yet, somehow managed to overcome the injuries that have plagued them all year.

“We just work hard and play the right way,” said Amadio. “Take shorter shifts, and just be smart about it. If you have 12 guys you can’t stay out there for two minutes, you just have to be smart and do your job.”

Nelson outshot Beaver Valley 37-25, however, the Hawks defensive play and special teams were the difference as B.V. went 2-for-5 on the power play and 8-for-9 on the penalty kill.

“I really like our defensive group, and I have since late September on,” he added. “It always seems like we’re battling an injury back there. We lost Quaid Anderson for an extended period of time and Jesse (Ihas) for an extended period of time, and Hunter (Young) was gone too, and now we sure are happy to have him back and healthy and playing the way we always knew he could. He gives us a chance to win every night, and that’s all we can ask for.”

The win gives the Hawks their 14th division title, and will look for their ninth KIJHL title when the playoffs start Feb. 28. The Leafs won the last two Murdoch Division titles but failed to get out of their Conference in either year, losing in six games to Beaver Valley in the division final last year, and to Kimberley in six in 2018.

Beaver Valley went on to play Kimberley in the Kootenay Conference championship last season but fell in five.

The bar has been set high for the Nitehawks, a team that has made the playoffs and maintained a winning record every one of coach Terry Jones’ 24-year tenure.

“We’ve set a bar, an expectation of ourselves, and I think every team does, but we expected this group to push for a division title and a league title,” added Cominotto. “There are some really good teams in our league and by no means is it going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy getting out of our own division. Nelson has a great team, but Castlegar is going to push us, and Spokane will give Nelson a tough time. We don’t know what’s going to happen but at the end of the day it’s important to set those high expectations and work towards them.”

With the division title, Beaver Valley earns home-ice advantage through the first two rounds and will open the KIJHL division playoffs on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Rebels in the Hawks Nest.