The Trail Smoke Eaters ended 2016 on a high note, defeating the West Kelowna Warriors in a 4-0 victory at the Cominco Arena on Friday.
After falling 3-2 in double overtime to the Warriors in West Kelowna on Thursday, Trail battled back on Friday to recapture third place in the Interior Division standings in a character-defining win for the Smokies.
“It was huge,” said Cam Keith, Trail Smoke Eaters head coach and GM. “Especially with the playoff implications actually starting to come into the fold. We were happy getting one point on the road, it’s not the ultimate … but we knew we had to take three out of four in order for it to be a successful series.”
Kale Howarth scored twice and Linden Marshall stopped 31 shots for the shutout in a physical game that saw seven misconducts get handed out and Trail capitalize on two power-play opportunities.
The Smokies carried the play through the first half of the opening frame and, following a tripping penalty to Braden Epp 6:55 into the period, a redirect by Howarth on a Mitch Stapley point shot beat last week’s PoW Shane Farkas in net for the Warriors for what proved to be the game winner.
The Warriors picked up the pace in the second half of the period outshooting Trail 16-7 but Marshall came up big on several occasions to preserve the lead heading into the second period, and ultimately, earn his first shutout of the season.
“All the guys played great,” said Marshall. “The ‘D’ especially they really held me in there. We were going all night, all four lines were giving her, and it feels good (to get the shutout).”
Midway through the second frame, Stapley jumped up into the rush and Howarth finished a slick passing play with the Smokies d-man with a laser top corner for his 23rd tally of the season to make it 2-0.
An undisciplined penalty by West K’s Calvin Tilsley gave the Smokies another extra-man chance. Ross Armour worked it to Connor Brown-Maloski at the top of the circle, and CBM saucered a perfect pass to Andre Ghantous on the doorstep and the Glendale, Calif. native banged in his own rebound for a 3-0 Smokies lead.
“That’s the one thing that has been hurting us of late, is our special teams hasn’t been as good,” said Keith. “Those two additions (Armour and Jeremy Lucchini) give us two really good power-play units, so now teams can’t key on just our first unit, we have two really good units that we can use.”
The goal was Ghantous’ third of the season to go along with 23 assists, and the skilled 18-year-old playmaker was one spark among many for the Smoke Eaters on the night.
“It feels good to finally get that monkey off your back after a couple of games of not scoring,” said Ghantous. “Everyone was going tonight, and everyone put their heart on the line, and we just played as a team.”
Less than three minutes later, Blaine Caton and Spencer McLean broke into the Warriors zone and Caton delivered a buttery behind-the-back pass that McLean fired through the legs of Farkas to complete the scoring.
The 4-0 Trail lead pushed an already testy Warriors team over the edge and some chippy play resulted in Armour going toe-to-toe with Parm Dhaliwal in the Smokies end, while Brown-Maloski backed up Andre Ghantous who was cross-checked into the back of the net by Warrior forward Jake Harrison. When the dust settled the Smokies Armour and Brown-Maloski and Warriors Harrison and Dhaliwal were ejected.
“It’s starting to become playoff hockey, guys are starting to compete hard, and the emotions are starting to come with it,” said Keith. “So when your team reacts in a way that they have each others backs, it means a lot in the locker room.”
Trail outshot West K 14-6 in the middle stanza to setup a defensive third period where Trail frustrated the Warriors attack, and countered with a number of thrilling odd-man rushes.
The Warriors outshot Trail 9-8 in the period and 31-29 in the game. Trail went 2-for-6 on the power play and Kelowna 0-for-3. Howarth earned the game’s first star, with Marshall and McLean getting second and third stars respectively.
Stapley’s two assists give him a team-leading 24 on the season, while Marshall has emerged from his backup role into a legitimate starter, sharing duties with Zach Dyment and giving Trail a dependable and consistent goaltending tandem.
“Linden Marshall, his ceiling is just getting higher and higher, especially the way he’s progressed from the beginning of the season until now,” said Keith. “The potential was there, but he hadn’t put it all together – he’s put it all together now. He’s a very athletic, big kid that competes to make those big saves.”
On Thursday, Smokie forward Mitch Barker tied the game 2-2 midway through the third period to force overtime. However, Connor Sodergren scored at 3:46 of the second overtime period to give the Warriors the win. Armour also scored for Trail in his return to the lineup since he was sidelined with injury in a Dec. 3 matchup in Salmon Arm.
Despite a December slump where Trail won just two games and lost three in overtime, the recent performances following the Christmas break are a good indication the team is back on track heading into the New Year’s playoff stretch.
“The tough part of going into the break, I wasn’t sure it was because we were going into the break or just a mid-season slump. But I was optimistic it was one of those times of year where you get into a mundane routine where you’re not playing your best hockey, so the break was just what we needed.”
Trail’s next match goes in Penticton on Wednesday before returning to the Cominco Arena on Friday for a home-and-home with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Smoke Signals: Trail native Jeremy Lucchini also returned to the lineup on Thursday in West Kelowna after missing the first half of the season due to injury and registered an assist in his first game back.
The Smoke Eaters also gave a timely thank you to longtime volunteers Tom Gawryletz, president of the Smoke Eaters Society, and Rick Basso, treasurer, for their many years of service to the team. See this week’s Times for upcoming story.