The drought is over, as the Trail Smoke Eaters split its weekend games, but clinched a playoff spot for the first time in seven years with a victory over the Coquitlam Express on Friday at the Cominco Arena.
The Smoke Eaters won its fourth straight match in an 8-3 victory over the Express, but were snake bit on Saturday as the Smokies travelled to Vernon and fell 5-1 to the Vipers. Despite the loss to the Vipers, the team’s success this season is a welcome turnaround for the organization and its fans.
“The kids this year are a really good group of kids, and I think the Smoke Eater staff and the community are really proud of them,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “I believe that’s a big reason for our home-ice success of late is because of the increased momentum and enthusiasm from the community. It just lifts the kids up and gives them that extra energy that will truly give us that home-ice advantage down the stretch and in the playoffs especially.”
Trail jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals from Kale Howarth and Josh Laframboise as the Smokies outshot the Express 14-10 in the opening frame. Owen Stout cut the lead in half five minutes into the second period, but a great rush by Connor Brown-Maloski split the defence and drew the goalie out of position, as a trailing Mitchell Barker converted a deft backhand pass from CBM to restore the two-goal cushion.
“We came out and did what we wanted to do (on Friday),” said Keith. “We wanted to come out in the first 10-minutes and dictate play, and try to put them in a spot where they had to comeback against us.”
Following a three-game suspension, Trail captain Brown-Maloski tallied three points against the Express in his return to the team on Friday and played inspired hockey.
“He (Brown-Maloski) has been itching to get back into games ever since his suspension, so you can tell he had some pent up aggression saved up, because he came out and played hard, and played physical,” said Keith.
AP Bradley Ross sparked the game winner, as the 16-year-old Beaver Valley Nitehawk wreaked havoc in front of the net and Spencer McLean picked up the rebound and fired it into the open net for a 4-1 lead at 11:07 of the middle frame.
The Express’ Alex Ambrosio cut the lead to two eight minutes into the final stanza, but Laframboise’s 24th of the season made it 5-2 on a slick three-way passing play with Luke Santerno and Jeremy Lucchini 37 seconds later. Goals by Braedon Tuck and Korbyn Chabot more than iced it for the Smokies, as the Express’s Luca Leone and Smokies’ Ryan Moon traded goals in the final minutes to make it an 8-3 final.
“We had contributions from all four lines, especially our fourth line with Chabot and Moon, it was really good to see those kids chip in offensively, and also play some more minutes than normal.”
Laframboise was the game’s first star for his two goals and an assist, with Brown-Maloski earning second star, and Linden Marshall the game’s third star. Luke Santerno also had a three-point night for the Smoke Eaters as Trail outshot Coquitlam 49-34.
The 24-22-4-0 Smoke Eaters are currently in third place in the Interior Division with 50 points, and the victory over the Express created enough distance, 17 points, between themselves and the Mainland Division’s fifth place team, the Surrey Eagles with 35 points, to secure a spot in the postseason under the BCHL’s new playoff format. However, with potentially every team in the Interior making the playoffs, the race lost a bit of its lustre this season.
“That hasn’t been our focus,” said Keith. “We’ve always considered ourselves in the playoffs. That was never a question for us as a group. After Christmas our focus was on getting home-ice advantage for the first round.”
In Vernon on Saturday, Steven Jandric and Jimmy Lambert each scored twice and added an assist, as the Vipers won its 27th game to pull 11 points ahead of Trail in the Interior Division bid for second place.
Penalties hurt the Smoke Eaters, as the Vipers capitalized on three-of-eight power plays.
“You can’t really get momentum going, when you’re in the penalty box as much as we were,” said Keith. “Some of the calls weren’t going our way, and that feeds into Vernon’s game … but at the end of the day they played better. That’s the team we’ve had the most trouble with this year, we have to match what they bring, and especially on the road, it’s a really tough place to play.”
Three third-period goals broke open a close 2-0 game to give the Vipers a commanding 5-0 lead until Brown-Malowski tallied his fourth point in two games with four minutes to play to spoil a shutout bid by Viper goalie Darion Hanson.
“He (Hanson) has been great, and so has Ty (Taylor), and honestly it’s been a treat to not have to worry about your goaltending,” said Vernon forward Lambert on the Vipers’ website. “You need good goaltenders to win a championship, and I think we have those goaltenders to do it, so hopefully we can pull it off.”
Smokies netminder Zach Dyment faced 44 shots in the loss, while Hanson blocked 30 in net for the Vipers.
Trail has eight games remaining in the regular season, with it’s final two matches a home-and-home against the Vipers. Vernon has a solid hold on second and has inched to within eight points of the Interior leading Penticton after the Vees fell 2-1 to Victoria in overtime on Saturday.
“The first and second spots, (Vipers’ coach) Mark (Ferner) is really pushing to get that bye, the rest and for us to get healthy, ” added Jandric. “It was a big four-point game for us seeing Trail is right on our heals.”
With the new BCHL playoff format, the top two seeds in the Interior Division get a bye the first round of the playoffs, with the third seed playing the sixth seed, and the fourth and fifth seeds facing off.
“We have a really crucial series against them (Vernon) the last two games of the year, and hopefully we can prove to them, and more than anything to ourselves, that they’re not a better hockey club,” said Keith.
Trail has a wild week of hockey starting tonight when the Smokies travel to Salmon Arm for a division match against the Silverbacks, then have a home-and-home against the Penticton Vees on Wednesday and Friday, before closing out the week with an afternoon tilt versus the Wenatchee Wild on Sunday at the Cominco Arena to complete the four-games-in-five-days odyssey.
“The good thing about our team is that we’ve always risen to those challenges. So we’re going to stay positive, and take one game at a time here … Our main focus is to get home ice for that first round.”