It was only a matter of time before a Junior A hockey club noticed what Dustin Nikkel was doing with the North Okanagan Knights.
The BCHL Salmon Arm SilverBacks plucked the Knights’ prize netminder, signing him full-time. The move came shortly after they dealt 20-year-old keeper Colin Dzijacky to the Woodstock Slammers of Manitoba for future considerations.
Facing an average of 35 shots a game, Nikkel, a 19-year-old Kelowna product, helped backstop the Knights to first place in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League. His 10 wins are tops in the league, and his .925 save percentage is third.
“He was probably the best goalie in the league,” said Knights’ captain Steve Pantazopoulos, of Nikkel. “He shouldn’t have been here in the first place. He was our best penalty killer at all times.”
‘Backs GM Troy Mick said Nikkel made an impression at main camp in September.
“He’s an athletic goaltender with a great feel for the game,” said Mick. “It was hard not to notice him over the summer with the work he put in during our camps and now his efforts have paid off.”
The announcement comes during a rough patch for the top-ranked Knights (13-5-0-1), losers of three straight for the first time all season.
North Okanagan faces a trio of Doug Birks Divisional games this weekend, starting tonight (7:30) against the Chase Heat (6-12-1-1) at Nor-Val Sports Centre. They visit Kevin Kraus’s Revelstoke Grizzlies (9-7-1-1) Saturday at the Forum, before returning to Nor-Val for a 3 p.m. Sunday matinee with the Kamloops Storm (10-6-2-2).
North Okanagan fell 2-1 to the Penticton Lakers Wednesday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Scoreless after two periods, the 6-13 Lakers clicked twice in just 32 seconds early in the final frame.
Reilly O’Connor (4th goal) scored the first one at 1:02, a second before Matty Saharchuk stepped back on the ice for an interference penalty. Matthew Billingsley (1st) collected the other Penticton goal, walking out in front untouched and sliding his shot under Zack Dueck (13 saves).
“We played fairly well; it was just little mistakes that cost us the game,” said Pantazopoulos, who drew an assist on Tanner Burns’ man-advantage goal with five minutes to play.
It was Burns’ team-leading 11th snipe.
Pantazopoulos admitted it will be difficult moving forward without Nikkel, but added “We’ve got enough skill up front. We’ve just got to buy into the systems.
“We’re just starting to find our game after the streak we put together at the start of the season.”