The Trail Smoke Eaters held the high-powered Penticton Vees’ forwards at bay for most of the night, but in the end it was defenceman Patrick Sexton whose second goal of the season proved to be the winner in the Smoke Eaters 3-2 loss to the Vees at the Cominco Arena, Saturday.
In a fast-paced, exciting matchup, the Smoke Eaters jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but Penticton would score three unanswered second-period goals to dash the hopes of a lively crowd celebrating Minor Hockey Day in Trail with Greater Trail Minor Hockey Association players.
With just 39 seconds remaining in the second period, Sexton took a pass from Steen Cooper and blasted a point shot past a screened Adam Todd to break a 2-2 tie and avoid the upset. The win lifted the Interior division leaders into a three-way tie with the Victoria Grizzlies and Langley Rivermen for top spot in the BCHL.
Despite the loss, it was a promising result for a Smoke Eaters team that traded their top three scorers (Travis Stephens, Jake Kauppila, and Braden Pears) over the course of three days last week, seemingly draining its talent pool.
“We had a big change up at the deadline, but we’re working together as a team,” said Smokie goalie Todd. “This is a brand new start for us, and we’re looking forward, and trying to take as many positives out of it as we can.”
The Vees, at the same time, bolstered their own line up with the addition of 20-year-old centremen Nic Pierog and Erik Benoit. While the two teams are going in opposite directions, the close result did not surprise Vees’ coach and GM Fred Harbinson.
“You listen to anything the new coach of Trail (Nick Deschenes) has been talking about, about trying to make some of the top teams really fight for their wins here, so we knew what we were in for,” said Harbinson. “It’s always a tough trip for us . . . and you know what? Just like anybody else they have pride over on that side. It doesn’t matter where they are in the standings they want to win and want to play hard and they did that tonight.”
Trail opened the scoring at the 17 minute mark of the opening period, when Braeden Cross chipped the puck past the defenceman and broke down the left side on a 2-on-1 with AP Riley Brandt.
Cross made a good move to draw the defenceman over, and then sent a nice pass to Brandt in close who made no mistake, firing the puck over the glove of Penticton goalie Olivier Mantha.
Trail’s Dylan Mascarin, who has been on the injured list for much of the season, then made it 2-0 at 6:56 of the second. Zane Shartz took a Dylan Bowen pass in the corner then sent a sharp slap-pass toward the crease, which Mascarin deftly redirected into the corner of the net. It was Shartz’s first point as a Smokie and Mascarin’s first goal of the season. Both players played well on the night and were a dynamic presence on the front end, creating opportunities, forechecking relentlessly, and even blocking shots.
“The effort was there,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Craig Clair. “We brought some guys in, it’s brought a little energy, given guys opportunities that may not have gotten a week, two weeks, a month ago. So we’re happy with the effort – we played one of the top teams in the country, even though the shots may have not been indicative of the play, in the first and third periods we held our own, and maybe even got a few more opportunities than they did.”
Penticton leading scorer McLure would ignite the comeback, banging in a quick cross-crease pass from Jarod Hilderman to make it 2-1. Ben Dalpe would tie it with a shorthanded goal at 14:24. Todd made a nice stop on Jack Ramsey, but the Vees forward gathered up the rebound and with Todd down, passed it in front to a waiting Dalpe who whipped it into the open net to tie it.
While the Vees held a significant edge in shots after two periods, 36-20, Todd kept it close with numerous big saves. Since returning from injury Dec. 1 the Courtney native has carried most of the load for the Smoke Eaters.
“The starts help, you know you kind of get into more of a routine and getting more comfortable in the games, and the guys are battling out there, they’re giving it their all, and all I can do is stop the puck.”
The Smokies poured it on in the final period, outshooting the Vees 12-7 but could not beat Mantha who stopped 30 shots on the night. Mascarin missed an opportunity in close, and Cross was foiled on a break away. Trail pulled Todd in the final 80 seconds, and were applying significant pressure until six-foot-three defenceman Christopher Rygus sent Riley Brandt face-first into the boards without a penalty call, causing a scrum and eventual misconduct to the Smokies bench with 40 seconds remaining.
The Smoke Eaters are mired in the league cellar, and with the exodus of its top three scorers, the present Smokie roster has amassed fewer goals, 51, than that of Penticton’s Pierog (27) and Brad McClure (32) combined who have 59 between them.
Still, with 16 games to play, the close result and similar efforts down the stretch will give the Smokies coaching staff some optimism for the future.
“Let’s play with a little pride,” added Craig. “Everyone knows they are here for the rest of the ride until the end of the year, let’s earn your spot for next year and let’s bring some pride back into the dressing room.”
The Trail Smoke Eaters traded their second top scorer before the trade deadline on Friday, sending Jake Kauppila, 18, to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs for Jakson Elynuik and future considerations . The Illinois native had amassed 10 goals and 17 assists while with the Smoke Eaters, and was briefly the team’s leading scorer after 20-year-old Stephens was traded to Victoria on Thursday.
The trade culminated a week of deals that saw 20-year-old Braden Pears dealt to West Kelowna for Zane Shartz on Wednesday.