With the opening-night jitters out of the way, the Trail Smoke Eaters notched their first ‘W’ of the season, rolling to a 4-0 shut-out victory over the West Kelowna Warriors on Saturday.
“It’s never fun to lose your home opener in front of 2,000 fans,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “But I think it was a good learning lesson for our boys. There never is an easy game in this league, no matter who you’re playing, and we have to be better at home, we have to get back to the mindset of making it really hard for teams to come here and play.”
The win evens up the Smoke Eater record to 1-1, following the 4-3 loss on Friday, where Trail looked tentative in the early going and fell behind 3-0 before mounting a comeback they could not quite complete.
“I think nerves played a part. The kids were trying to put on a show for the home crowd, and all the excitement built up through all the improvements in the arena. Some of the rookies had never played in front of more than a few hundred fans … it was close to a playoff atmosphere as far as the crowd goes – but there are no excuses.”
The follow up to Friday’s tough 4-3 loss saw a more confident and ready Trail squad go into Kelowna Saturday for the return match.
“The pressure kind of came off, of feeling that we had to put our skills on display,” said Keith. “The guys just stuck to the game plan of being simple, road-style of hockey where we controlled pucks down low and play with more of a gritty-style game.”
Brandon Wells stopped 21 shots to earn his first victory and shutout as a Smoke Eater, and Levi Glasman scored what proved to be the winner at 8:16 of the first period, while Andre Ghantous contributed with a goal and two assists.
The Smokies started the scoring when Seth Barton worked the puck down low to Ghantous, who pitched a perfect pass to Glasman at the top of the crease, and the Red Deer native wired it by Warriors netminder Nik Amundrud for his second goal of the season and a 1-0 Trail lead.
Wells showed early poise, stopping Max Bulawka on a breakaway to keep the score tied at zero, as West Kelowna outshot Trail 10-7 in the period.
“It actually helps your team as well when they feel your goalie is confident and he makes a big save for you, you get an energy boost from that, so that was a big moment in the game obviously and it kind of carried through for the rest with his play,” said Keith.
The Smoke Eaters went on the power play late in the second period after Cavin Tilsley was given a four-minute penalty for butt-ending at 16:32. Eight-six seconds later, Ghantous finished off a pretty passing play with Ross Armour and Carter Jones, burying a shot from the left face-off circle to give Trail a 2-0 lead. The Smokies dominated the period, outshooting West K 11-6.
The Smoke Eaters tight-checking game continued. After killing off a penalty, Kale Howarth tapped the puck up to a rushing Ghantous who made a perfect feed to Armour on the doorstep for a 3-0 cushion 8:23 into the final stanza.
Braeden Tuck finished the scoring with an empty net goal at the 16-minute mark with assists going to Tyler Ghirardosi and Ryan Murphy.
Defensively, the Smoke Eaters played a text-book match, said Keith, shutting down the West Kelowna forwards, limiting chances, and getting big stops from Wells when called upon.
“Our ‘D’ were really good at closing time and space and playing hard and getting pucks out relatively fast so they couldn’t build any cycle. They didn’t really wear our team down, we were breaking out pucks before they could get any offence going. So as far as coaching goes, it was a perfect game.”
Trail outshot the Warriors 27-21, went 1-for-6 on the power play and were 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. Ghantous was named the game’s first star, Wells second star, and Armour earned third star with a goal and an assist.
In Friday’s match, West Kelowna jumped out to a 3-0 second period lead, before goals from Blaine Caton and Levi Glasman drew the Smokies to within one. However, Kowalski’s third goal of the game proved the winner as he wired a power-play goal from the right circle past Wells for a 4-2 Warriors lead.
Trail’s Armour made it 4-3 with 8:33 to play but Amundrud was unbeatable after that, thwarting a number of great Smoke Eater scoring opportunities for the win.
Trail outshot West Kelowna 30-28, with Kowalski, Armour, and Trail defenceman Jeremy Lucchini named stars 1, 2, and 3.
Trail hosts the Wenatchee Wild on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena, then travel to Salmon Arm Saturday to battle the Silverbacks.