The Trail Smoke Eaters ended their six game losing streak with an impressive 6-4 win over the Chilliwack Chiefs on Thursday, but dropped a crucial 3-2 game in double overtime to the Vernon Vipers on Saturday at the Cominco Arena.
With over 1,200 fans in the stands celebrating Hockey Day in Trail, a Smokies win would have tied the Vipers for fourth place in the Interior division, but, despite the loss, the Smoke Eaters gave the crowd plenty to cheer about.
The teams fired more than 100 shots at Vipers goalie Andrew Shortridge and Trail netminder Bailey MacBurnie, with Trail having the 54-52 edge, but it was the Vipers that earned the extra point and stretched its lead to three points over Trail for the final playoff spot.
“This team, we get a lot of shots, and we see a lot of them hit him in the chest, but don’t take anything away from Shortridge, he was awesome tonight, as was Bailey,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Curtis Toneff. “So we’re not going to hang our heads on this one. It looked a bit like an NHL game out there where it comes down to one little mistake.”
Trail jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second period, but the Vipers battled back to tie it, and with 2:57 left in the second overtime period, Liam Finlay forced a turnover to the right of Trail goalie Bailey MacBurnie, and fed Odeen Tufto who wristed it in from the left hash mark past MacBurnie for the 3-2 victory.
“I thought it was a very exciting game on both sides,” said Vipers head coach Mark Ferner. “Obviously lots of penalties kind of took the flow out of it, but I thought both teams played really hard and both teams had their chances.”
The Smoke Eaters opened the scoring with 4:10 to play in the opening frame, when Kyle Howarth stripped the puck from the Viper defenceman inside the blue line and turned it into a 3-on-1. Howarth broke in on the left side, dropped it back to a trailing Nick Halloran who then feathered a pass to Newton on the right wing for the tap in and his 10th goal of the season.
Howarth made it 2-0 midway through the second frame when he jumped on a failed clearing attempt in the Vipers slot and beat Shortridge low stick side. Howarth’s two-point night, was his fifth in the last four games, as the Red Deer native looked impressive on a line with Halloran and Newton, tallying his ninth goal of the season and 22nd point in 41 games.
“It was a tough battle between both teams,” said Howarth, the Fortis Energy player of the game. “Bounces sometimes don’t go your way, and a double-overtime loss, you can’t really blame anyone.”
With six minutes remaining in the period, Vernon replied on the power play, when Tufto’s point shot ricocheted off the backboard to Finlay at the side of the net for his 14th goal.
Seventy-nine seconds later, after a face off in the Trail end, Riley Brandt surprised the Trail goaltender, snapping a shot from the right circle by MacBurnie to tie it at two.
Eighteen minor penalties through the first two periods marred the flow of a spirited match, that saw both goalies come up big time and again, with the shots 30-28 in favour of Vernon heading into the final frame.
“Personally, I think two teams like this fighting for a playoff spot, I’d like to see it be let go a little bit, and let the two teams play hockey,” said Toneff. “I think it would be a better pace game but it’s not in our control and we know that. We took a couple bad penalties there’s no doubt about it, and it’s a game of inches.”
Trail pressed in the third period firing 21 shots at Shortridge, and ringing a couple pucks off the iron, but could not solve the Vipers’ goalie.
Trail had the best chances in the 4-on-4 overtime firing four shots on net, but were stymied again. The teams exchanged great scoring chances early in the 3-on-3, as MacBurnie stoned the Vipers forward Finley with a great left pad save, and Snakes goalie Shortridge did the same at the edge of his crease, just seconds prior to Tufto ending it.
“He (Shortridge) has been terrific for us all year,” said Ferner. “But so was MacBurnie, you don’t see that many shots very often. It’s not the coaches’ ideal situation, but both teams have some offensive players that can make plays, and both goalies played well, we’re just fortunate we came out on the winning end.”
Trail went 0-for-7 on the power play while Vernon was 1-for-8. MacBurnie was named the game’s first star, with Tufto and Shortridge the game’s second and third stars respectively.
“We got a good group, and we bounce back really good,” added the 18-year-old rookie, Howarth. “We play well against strong teams, and we only have strong teams going out, so I think we’re going to do some damage and make the playoffs.”
In Thursday’ match, Evan MacEachern scored two goals and added an assistant in a 6-4 victory over the Chiefs. Newton also scored twice, while Brett Witala netted the winner for Trail 3:52 into the third period to make it 5-3. Harlan Orr tallied the other goal for Trail as Bailey MacBurnie stopped 38 shots, and Matteo Esposito 25 for the Chiefs.
“The win Thursday bumped our little slump there,” said Toneff. “So it’s good to know we can be confident on home ice. We have three guys out, but some guys are stepping up in a big way, and tonight it just came down to a couple penalties and power plays . . .
“They (Vernon Vipers) are three points up on us now, and we have some heavy competition coming up with West Kelowna and two against Penticton, so we’re going to start with West Kelowna and take it from there, and that’s all we can do.”
Smoke Signals: Trail forward Kyle Starr returned to the line up Saturday but was used sparingly, while Ross Armour and Jake Kauppila remained sidelined for the Smoke Eaters, and will likely be out for another week.