The playoff window has all but closed for the Trail Smoke Eaters who ended a three-games-in-three-days road trip to the coast with a 5-2 loss to Coquitlam Express on Sunday.
The Smokies managed just one point over the trifecta, an 8-7 overtime setback to the Chilliwack Chiefs on Friday, followed by a 4-3 defeat to the Langley Rivermen on Saturday, and the loss to the Express Sunday.
“You have those weekends where you end it on a good note with a win in the last game and you feel a little bit different about the outcome,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “But our Coquitlam game was just overall a big disappointment. I know as a group we realize that, although it’s not a focus, we’re still pushing for a playoff spot, but to show up with that kind of effort is unacceptable.”
Trail missed a prime opportunity to make up ground on the Interior division rivals West Kelowna Warriors and Merritt Centennials as both teams went winless on the weekend. The Smokies sit 17 points back of the final playoff spot in the Interior division with just 13 games remaining.
Coquitlam rolled to a 5-0 third-period lead before Trail would find the scoreboard, with goals coming from captain Jake Lucchini and Jordan Passmore.
Trail outshot the Express 41-27 but could not beat the game’s first star, goaltender Chris Tai, who stymied an erratic Smokies attack until Lucchini’s 23rd goal of the season at 6:16 of the third.
Coquitlam’s Thanvir Bandesha scored the only goal of the first period despite Trail’s 18-7 edge in shots. The Express netted three more in the second frame on goals from ex-Smokie Brendan Lamont, Corey Mackin, and Brett Supinski. Mackin would score his league-leading 41st goal and 84th point to make it 5-0 on the power play five minutes into the third to round out the scoring for the Express.
“Shots were deceptive that game,” said Deschenes. “There was no traffic to the net, no driving the net, we looked off good opportunities to shoot the puck, and their top line produced four of their five goals, we weren’t hard enough on them.”
The first two games of the road trip also took its toll as Trail dressed three AP’s, and were without Dallas Calvin and Evan MacEachern for the Express game. In addition, forward Kienan Scott and defenceman Bryan Gerstenfeld missed the road trip due to injury.
The Smokies also deserved better on Saturday against the Rivermen, as they dominated play but came up short on the scoreboard.
“It was an effort I was happy with. As a group we played hard, and we outplayed them, outshot them, and out-chanced them but we ran into a goal post three times and a cross bar, or it would have been a different story.”
The Rivermen went into the third period with a 4-2 lead with two goals from Marcus Vela and singles from Colton Kehler and Gage Torrel. Lucchini scored both Smokies goals and Cooper Leitch added the other marker for Trail with 1:36 remaining after goalie Adam Todd was pulled for an extra attacker. Trail outshot Langley 38-28.
Friday night’s game started well but a disastrous final seven minutes of the third period allowed Chilliwack to comeback from a 7-4 deficit.
Chilliwack pulled its goalie, Aiden Pelino, off-and-on over the last seven minutes and the strategy worked. With 6:46 to go, Jake Hand one-timed a Scott Davidson pass past Brett Clark to make it 7-5. The Chiefs coach pulled Pelino again, and with 5:48 to go Jordan Kawaguchi deflected a Tkachuk point shot past Clark to make it 7-6. Then with Pelino on the bench, extra skater Craig Puffer would score with 27 seconds left on the clock to force OT.
“We completely blew the lead against Chilliwack,” added Deschenes. “I can count three or four moments when, had we executed, we could have won that game.”
The Chiefs Tipper Higgins ended it 1:23 into OT to complete the improbable comeback.
Jake Hand scored two goals and added three assists for the Chiefs, and former Smoke Eater captain Davidson had two assists. Lucchini and Craig Martin each had four-point nights with two goals and two assists. Max Newton, Harlan Orr, and Charlie Zuccarini had the other goals for Trail, that was outshot 49-33 by the Chiefs.
The three-and-three against the Mainland division teams was the final extended road trip of the season for the Smoke Eaters, with 12 of their 13 remaining games against division rivals.
Trail is, mathematically at least, still in the hunt for a playoff spot, and while the Smokies coach acknowledges the team has underachieved this season, he expects their best effort in every remaining game.
“We’ll just look at video and learn, and if we can’t learn from these and keep moving forward as a group, then we might as well end the season right now. There is still a lot to play for and there is a lot of players moving on to the next level. They still have to elevate their games in a big way I think to make those opportunities seem justifiable, in my opinion, and then there’s also players playing for next year.”