Despite superlative contributions from affiliate players, the recent bout of injuries to the Trail Smoke Eaters is beginning to take its toll as the Smokies dropped a pair of matches against two of the top teams in the BCHL on the weekend.
A total of six regular Trail skaters were sitting in the stands watching the game against the Wenatchee Wild on Sunday. With Ryan Murphy already gone for the season, Ross Armour, Mitch Stapley, Tyson Slater, Kyle Chernenkoff, and Kale Howarth all sat out due to injury, and Josh Laframboise in the midst of a four-game suspension. Despite the apparent catastrophe, the remaining Smokies were fighting for the equalizer in both matches, falling 2-1 to Penticton Friday and 5-4 to the Wild on Sunday.
“I was really happy with the how the guys are responding right now to playing a playoff style hockey,” said Keith. “We have a very short lineup and a lot of the older guys picked up the slack where we needed it, and the younger guys bought in. You have to give a lot of credit to the APs and the programs that are running.”
In Sunday’s match, the Wild’s Brian Williams netted the winning goal with 7:29 to play in the period. The San Diego native took a pass from Brendan Harris and walked in all alone on Trail goalie Zach Dyment, only to be stopped cold on his attempted deke, but was able to corral the rebound and put it by Dyment for a 5-3 Wild lead.
“I don’t think it was our best effort, but the boys stuck with it, right through until the end,” said the Wild’s assistant captain Tyler Rockwell. “Really proud of the guys, and Yammer (Anthony Yamnitsky) came in, our relief goalie, in the second period, and really played well and gave us a chance to win.”
Wenatchee opened the scoring on a Jimmy O’Brien tally at 7:54 of the first period, but Luke Santerno tied it scoring shorthanded for his first of two on the night when Troy Ring sprung the Smokies leading scorer on a breakaway. The Bentley commit made no mistake deking starter Devin Cooley and going upstairs on the forehand for his 30th of the season.
Mitch Barker made it 2-1 Trail, taking a backdoor pass from Ryan Moon and going five hole on Cooley at 13:10 to chase the starter from the pipes. But the Wild drew even on Dakota Raabe’s 20th goal less than two minutes later, beating Smoke Eater goalie Zach Dyment in close.
Wenatchee outshot the Smoke Eaters 16-4 in the period but the score remained deadlocked at two heading into the middle frame.
“That’s a part of our game, we do outshoot teams, we like to take pride in that,” said Rockwell. “But I think we gave them (Trail) too many Grade A chances, they’re shots that they should have scored on and we probably had the same number of quality chances.”
Eight minutes into the second, Raabe worked the puck down low and sent a pass to the BCHL’s leading scorer Harris on the doorstep who fired in his 22nd of the season for a 3-2 lead. But Trail replied when Mitchell Barker flew down the left wing, waited for the goalie to commit, then sent a pass cross-crease to Ryan Moon who banged it home at 12:27 of the second.
The score stayed that way until the third period. After Carter Cochrane was sent off at the end of the second period for roughing, the Smokies got caught up ice and Troy Conzo and A.J. Vanderbeek walked in on a 2-on-0, with Vanderbeek wiring it over a sprawling Dyment to make it 4-3.
After Williams put the Wild up 5-3, Santerno gave the Smokies life when he and Connor Brown-Maloski skated in on a 2-on-1. Yamnitsky kicked out the right pad to stop Brown-Maloski’s shot, but Santerno was in perfect position to fire in the rebound to cut the lead to one with 4:20 left.
The Smoke Eaters pressed in the final minutes, and Brown-Maloski almost stuffed in the tying goal with seconds on the clock, but the Wild defenceman got a stick on it, as the buzzer sounded to end the game.
“When you need that goal at a special time, you do miss guys like Kale Howarth, Josh Laframboise, Ross Armour, Mitch Stapley,” said Keith. “I could go down the list of key elements that we are missing, but I also look at it as a positive. We talked about it before, Ryan Moon, a kid who wasn’t really playing a lot of ice time before Christmas … Corbyn Chabot the same thing, and now they’re big, integral parts of our lineup, they’re playing big minutes at the hardest time of year and they’re responding well.”
Wenatchee beat Vernon 3-1 Friday, before falling to Penticton 2-0 on Saturday on its three-game Interior swing and hold on to first place in the Mainland Division, while Trail clings to third spot in the Interior despite three straight losses. Trail sits two points up on West Kelowna and four points clear of Merritt. Penticton, meanwhile, clinched its fourth straight Interior Division title with its 2-1 victory over Trail Friday.
With the adversity, comes the expectation of a healthy lineup in time for playoffs, and an even better Smoke Eaters team when the real season commences.
“Moving forward that helps us so when you get into those long playoff series and guys need to fill different roles, they’re comfortable doing it and they’ve done it before at a time of year when hockey is tough and everyone is fighting for a playoff position,” said Keith.
The Wild outshot Trail 42-19, and went 1-for-5 on the power play while Trail was 0-for-3. Raabe was named the games first star, with Barker second star, and Moon the game’s third star.
Trail plays a crucial home-and-home with Merritt on the weekend, hosting the Centennials on Friday at 7:30 p.m.