Two-out-of-three ain’t bad – especially on a pro-longed road trip that saw the Trail Smoke Eaters win the first two games before falling to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in a rescheduled Monday match.
Smoke Eater players and coaches spent many more hours on the Smokies’ bus than usual for a Vancouver Island road trip. High winds shut down ferries from Powell River to Comox following their Friday night game against the Kings, so the bus journeyed back to Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver and waited in line at the ferry terminal. Unfortunately, a crossing seemed hopeless, and the team was forced to postpone its Saturday game in Alberni to Monday and spend the night in North Van.
“What a brutal trip,” said Smoke Eater Nick Deschenes. “We basically waited for about four or five hours then decided to just get into a hotel. We did some bowling and hung out, and probably felt better in Cowichan (on Sunday) than we would have normally having played two games.”
The Smokies beat Powell River 4-2 Friday and trounced the Cowichan Valley Capitals 7-3 Sunday, but fell to a tough Alberni Valley Bulldogs team 4-2 on Monday.
“Every time we go into Port Alberni, they must have the game of the year every time we go there,” said Deschenes. “The second period, they were not a last place team, I mean they outshot us 16-2.”
Incredibly, it was the Smoke Eaters that scored the only goal of the period to tie the game at 1-1 heading into the third. Nick Halloran netted his 15th goal of the season on a pretty passing play from Ross Armour and Connor Brown-Maloski, but Alberni would finally solve Smokie goalie Bailey MacBurnie in the third period after outshooting Trail 23-11 through two.
“Bailey MacBurnie was the one reason, but we were close down one goal. I think things kind of unravelled a little bit, had the circumstances been different and it wasn’t our third (game) on that road trip, we might have had a little more pep.”
Dominic Thom opened the scoring at 8:52 of the first period with assists going to former Smoke Eater Rhett Wilcox and Quinn Syrydiuk. Halloran tied it with 7:30 left in the second but a pair of third-period goals from Liam Conrad two minutes apart gave the Bulldogs a 3-1 lead.
“I think because the goals came fairly quickly the previous games, but they were making it pretty hard for us to get in the scoring areas, that kind of frustrated our guys early, and we just couldn’t get any traction.”
Smokies captain Evan MacEachern sailed a shot in from the point that eluded a screened Brody Clayes in the Alberni net to cut the lead to one with eight minutes remaining, but an empty netter from Syrydiuk with 42 seconds left on the clock iced it for the dogs.
“There was a couple things we’d like to have fixed,” said Bulldogs assistant coach Adam Hayduk following the game. “I think two breakaways that we gave up, but other than that the coaching staff will be pretty happy with that effort.”
Wilcox added his second assist of the game in what was his first game with the Bulldogs after coming over in a trade from Cowichan Valley on Sunday.
“I think Rhett’s going to fit in pretty well here, he is a hard working player, pretty smart, and a pretty good debut,” said Hayduk.
The loss ends the Smoke Eaters four game win streak, but Trail will get right back on the ice tonight against the Vernon Vipers at the Cominco Arena. A Smokie win can tie the Vipers for the final playoff spot, coupled with a Vernon loss to Penticton Tuesday night (score unavailable), and Trail will have three games in hand on Vernon.
“We want to be the best team possible at the end of the year and right now we’re trending in the right direction,” said Deschenes. “Collectively and as individuals we keep getting better, and I’d like to think the buy-in is pretty high right now, so we just have to keep working and see what happens.”
The 15-18-0-2 Vipers have two wins and three losses in December, while the Smokies have gone 4-2 to close the gap. Smoke Eaters goalie MacBurnie has been stellar in net, stopping 35 shots on Monday, including several spectacular saves to keep the game close. He will likely be relied on again on Wednesday in neutralizing the snakes.
“They play an aggressive style, but I really think in the last couple games we’ve proven that we really have a lot of fight in this group, and I think it’s going to be a good game,” said Deschenes.
The Smoke Eater players raised and donated $300 to the Salvation Army Food Hamper Drive, which will also be accepting donations of perishable food items at the door tonight. The Smoke Eaters are hoping for a big crowd for the Vipers game and have cut admission to $5 across the board. The puck drop goes at 7:30 p.m.