Woefully shorthanded, the Trail Smoke Eaters dipped into a healthy group of reserves that rose to the occasion on Wednesday night in a 5-3 victory over the Merritt Centennials.
The Smoke Eaters broke open a 1-1 game in the second period, scoring four goals including the winner by Luke Santerno on the way to their 22nd win and sole possession of third place in the BCHL’s Interior Division.
“It was a top-to-bottom roster well played game, every guy chipped in to do what we needed to do with our short roster,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith.
The Smokies were without top forwards Ross Armour (injury), Connor Brown-Maloski (suspension), and Kale Howarth (CJHL Prospects game), and inserted affiliate players (AP) Tyler Ghirardosi and 16-year-old Bradley Ross from the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, and Justen James of the Creston Valley Thunder Cats into the line up. Keith put all three on the fourth line and the young trio performed beyond expectations.
“The fourth line was probably one of our best lines. They played simple, they played hard, they built a lot of momentum and was a really good effort from everyone that needed to step up.”
The Smoke Eaters carried the play in the first period outshooting Merritt 16-10, but headed into the second frame tied 1-1 thanks to a late goal by Andre Ghantous.
Blaine Caton put Trail up 2-1, and AP James notched his first goal in his first game as a Smokie putting in a rebound off a rush with Ghirardosi and Ross for a two-goal cushion midway through the period.
“I rotated four lines the entire game, and they never sat a shift,” said Keith of the all-AP line. “I put them in defensive-zone draws, I put them in all the spots and they just responded in every situation.”
Luke Santerno scored his 29th goal of the season to make it 4-1 at the 5:57 mark, and with 80 seconds to play in the second period, Carter Cochrane blasted a shot past goalie Colton Lancaster for a 5-1 lead.
The Cents’ Nick Fidanza scored eight minutes into the third, and Henry Cleghorn made it interesting drawing Merritt to within two with seven minutes left, but Smokie goalie Linden Marshall closed the door stopping 32 shots for the victory.
The Smokies fired 42 shots at the Merritt net, with Ghantous named the game’s first star for his three-point night, Caton the second star, and the Cents’ Henry Cleghorn the third star.
Trail returns home to host the Penticton Vees on Saturday at the Cominco Arena. The Vees lead the Interior Division with 66 points but ceded points to the Smoke Eaters in all four games this year that includes a 3-2 Smokies win earlier this month in Penticton.
“Our team is a team that has responded in bigger games this year, so I’m hoping that we understand that every game from here on out is a four-point game,” said Keith.
Howarth will be back for the Vees game on Saturday, but Armour is lost until playoffs, and Brown-Maloski will sit out his final game of a three-game suspension.
“We’ll be going with three APs,” said Keith. “As it looks right now with all the injuries, most, if not all our guys will be back for playoffs, so if we can stick together as a team and pick up the slack in different spots I think it will be a huge team-builder. Go on a positive run here, then get our key players back for playoffs, I think it will make us very dangerous.”
The puck drops at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Cominco Arena.