A rock-solid game from Linden Marshall in net and strong special teams proved pivotal for the Trail Smoke Eaters on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena, as the Smokies rolled to a 5-1 win over their BCHL Interior division rival Merritt Centennials.
Trail scored twice on the extra-man advantage including the winning goal from Connor Brown-Maloski at 6:37 of the second period to give Trail it’s fifth win of the season. After Cent’s defenceman Nick Fiorentino was sent off for tripping, Trail forward Cooper Leitch worked the puck to pointman Bennett Morrison who sent a cross-ice pass to CBM. The Kamloops native one-timed a slap shot through traffic and by Merritt goalie Cole Kehler to put Trail up 2-1.
“I think first off goaltending was definitely key,” said Trail Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “I thought we carried the play for the first two periods, and special teams kicked in and helped out. They gave a strong push in the third period, hats off to them, but we were able to manage that and keep them at bay and take advantage of a couple breakdowns. As we have experienced many times, when you’re trying to go for a goal, it’s hard to maintain that defensive posture.”
John Laurito started the scoring when he took a pass at center ice from Mitch Stapley and burst through the neutral zone, splitting the defence, and beating Kehler on a deke between the pads to put the Smokies up 1-0 at 7:11 of the opening frame. However, 92 seconds later, Fiorentino took a pass at the left hash mark and wired it top shelf on Marshall for a power-play goal to tie it as both teams fired 13 shots on the other in the period.
Trail came out committed in the second. After Brown-Maloski’s marker put the Smokies up, Max Newton slid a perfect pass to Leitch in the slot, and he blasted it off the inside cross bar and out to give the Smokies a 3-1 lead.
Trail outshot the Cents 18-9 in the period, but Merritt pushed back in the third, firing 15 shots on goal to Trail’s five only to be stopped repeatedly by Marshall. The 17-year-old Victoria native, made a couple of huge glove saves in close, and topped it off with a highlight-reel save in the dyng minutes, when he slid across to stone former Kamloops Blazer forward Mitch Lipon on the doorstep.
“I was nervous, but the guys kept pushing and we got another goal to make it 5-1 so that helped us,” said Marshall. “It was a big team effort, everybody played really well and kept it together. Everyone was battling hard the whole night, we didn’t stop we just kept going.”
Trail added two more in the third period with Newton wiring a power-play goal, his fourth of the season, into a wide open net thanks to a pretty set up from Nick Halloran and Kurt Black. Halloran, then finished it off with just over two minutes to play, when his centering pass went off a Cents d-man’s stick and into the net.
For Marshall, it was his second win in three games played this season, behind starter Bailey MacBurnie, and like any competitor, he would like to see more action but is happy to contribute when called upon.
“It’s hard, you play one in every five or six games, you kind of get out of the rhythm a bit, but it’s nice to come in and get a win,” said Marshall. “I have to push the starter and make sure he’s doing his job, and trying to play as much ice-time as I can get, and just help the team out.”
It was, all-in-all, a good day for special teams. Trail boasts the top penalty kill in the league, 87.5 per cent, but owns the worst power play, going 6-for-55, a meagre 9.17 per cent success rate, prior to Wednesday’s match.
“It (the power-play) can win a hockey game,” said Deschenes. “We’ve had a great PK (penalty kill) so it’s kind of neutralized itself, we’ve had to rely on 5-on-5, but we don’t have any leading scorers on our roster right now so for us to get it on the 5-on-4 advantage, where scoring is three-times greater – it needs to happen.”
Marshall stopped 36 shots on the night, while Kehler blocked 31 in the Merrit goal. Leitch, Halloran, Newton, and Brown-Maloski all counted a goal and an assist, while Leitch took first star honours, CBM second star, and Kehler third star for Merritt. Marshall was named the Fortis Energy of the game.
“This is Bailey’s year and opportunity, and I think he’s shown he’s deserving of that first string goaltender role,” said Deschene. “But for Linden it says a lot, he’s a young man and extremely dedicated, and to come in as sparsely as he’s playing right now and really hold the fort, shows the kind of potential he has as a goaltender . . . Each game he’s gotten better and more consistent, and really doing well, I feel good for him.”
The win, Trail’s fifth of the season, draws the Smoke Eaters within two points of Merritt with a couple games in hand, but trail the fourth place West Kelowna Warriors by six points. The Smoke Eaters will look to keep it going tonight when the play the Cents again in Merritt at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a different rink, so we have to address that otherwise it’s going to be business as usual. We are really keying in internally on how we need to play and it seems to be slowly taking over, so it’s good.”
Both Evan MacEachern and Kyle Howarth will remain sidelined for Friday’s game. The Smokies’ captain suffered a wrist injury earlier this month and is due back in two weeks, while Howarth, sat out a two-game suspension, but is still out with concussion symptoms.