Trail Smoke Eaters fans came out in droves for the home opener at the Cominco Arena on Friday, as over 2,000 cheered on the Smoke Eaters to kick off the BCHL’s 56th campaign against the West Kelowna Warriors.
The Trail faithful were treated to an inspiring opening video to start the night, a highlight-reel homage to the great Smoke Eaters tradition and the passing of the torch to the 2017-18 Smokies.
However, one bad bounce came back to haunt a nervous Trail team that fell behind early, and could not recover as the Warriors skated to a 4-3 victory.
West Kelowna’s Matt Kowalski scored the winning goal, while completing the natural hat trick to lead the Warriors to victory. The Warriors forward skated into the Trail zone and wired a short-side shot past Smokies goaltender Brandon Wells to give West Kelowna a 4-2 lead with 7:33 to play in the middle frame.
The Warriors win made it the second year in a row they beat Trail in the season opener, but Trail will try to duplicate last year’s win in the second half of the home-and-home in Kelowna tonight.
West Kelowna opened the scoring on the power play. Brandon Wells made a pad save on Wyatt Head, but Parm Dhaliwal banged in the rebound six minutes in to go up 1-0.
Both teams struggled to find any momentum, and Trail’s best chance came when Blaine Caton drove to the net, made a quick move in front only to lose the puck on the backhand.
Then with 2:32 remaining and another Warrior power play, Wells’ attempt to clear the puck bounced off Kowalski and into the net for a 2-0 West K lead as Trail outshot the Warriors 9-8 in the period.
The game opened up in the second stanza, with the Warriors extending their lead to 3-0 when Kowalski broke down the left wing on a 2-on-1, kept and fired a wrister over the blocker of the Trail goalie at 16:54.
Trail got on the the board a minute later on the power play, when Caton deflected a point shot from Jeremy Lucchini past West Kelowna goalie Nik Amundrud to make it 3-1.
The Smoke Eaters drew within one, when Red Deer native Levi Glasman took a pass from Ross Armour stepped over the blue line and fired his first goal as a Smoke Eater top shelf with 11:41 to play in the middle frame.
Each team traded chances but Trail got into penalty trouble and Kowalski’s hat-trick goal proved the difference. Trail outshot West K 12-11 in the period.
A collision at the Warriors blue line midway through the third period saw Nathan Reilly go down hard. Paramedics were called, and the Warriors defenceman was taken off on a stretcher, with an undisclosed injury.
When play resumed, the action ramped up as Trail’s Olson Werenka went toe-to-toe with six-foot-four Warrior defenceman Tyler Jutting. The tilt seemed to spark the Smoke Eaters, and Armour jumped on a Kale Howarth rebound and beat Amindrud to cut the lead to 4-3 with 8:33 to play.
The Smokies had several quality chances in the final minutes, with Howarth just missing from the slot, followed by a Spencer McLean slap shot rolling over the goalie’s shoulder and just wide, and a glorious chance for Armour who had the goalie down-and-out but could not find the twine.
With seven seconds remaining, the face off in the Warriors end, and Wells pulled for an extra attacker, Trail won the draw and threw everything they had at the Warriors goal but could not get the equalizer.
Trail outshot West Kelowna 30-28, going 2-for-4 on the power play, the Warriors were 2-for-6. Kowalski wrapped up first-star considerations with the hat trick, Trail’s Armour received the second-star nod, and Lucchini, third star, with a pair of assists.
Trail visits West Kelowna tonight with the puck drop at 7:30 p.m.