Head coach Kris Mallette set a goal of winning five straight before the North Okanagan Knights broke for the Christmas break.
Dustin Nikkel made it happen, backstopping his team with a stellar 24-save shutout performance as the Knights squeaked out a 1-0 win over the host Chase Heat Thursday night at Art Holding Memorial Arena.
North Okanagan heads into the holidays at 23-10-0-1, third in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League’s Doug Birks Division. The ever-improving Heat are 3-29-1-0, last in the Okanagan Shuswap Conference.
“We pulled it off, but the last two games weren’t the way we wanted to play,” said Mallette. “The three games before we played very well, but these last two we got away from what was making us successful.
“Dustin Nikkel was lights out. First period, we probably could have been down 3-0. He made some unbelievable save and he’s been playing so well.”
Mallette acquired the 18-year-old keeper from the Kelowna Chiefs early in the season, and credits him for embracing the starting role.
“He’s taken the reins as of late and done a very good job for us.”
Added Nikkel: “I’m just trying to stick with the confidence that’s been building up game after game. I’m just going shot by shot and just trying to focus on what’s coming at me right away.”
Nikkel says the Knights are going to treat the New Year like an entirely new season as they prepare for the stretch drive. They return to action Friday, Jan. 6 against the host Sicamous Eagles (13-18-1-1).
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready for playoffs,” he said. “Some guys, from the beginning of the season are starting to shine now. Bryce (Koch), he’s starting to work a lot better.”
Forward Cory Hochhausen, playing the point on the powerplay, wired a shot past Chase netminder Russell Sanderson (24 saves) with 52 seconds remaining in regulation.
“Cory had a big lane up at the top and the goalie got a piece of it, but not enough, obviously,” said Mallette.
“I honestly thought it was going to be a 0-0 tie. I thought ‘This is going on forever.’ In the second and third we had some pretty easy tap-ins and guys just didn’t bear down.
“Chase definitely outworked us. I’ve seen a big improvement from the last time we played them for sure.”
The Knights were without regulars Mateja Leko, Alex Klintaire, Lee Muir and Brady Janzen. Mallette was impressed by call-ups Nick Astasiewicz and Cortlan Procter.
“It’s always nice when the kids come up and listen and do what you ask of them.”