Merritt Centennials forward Nick Granowicz scored twice including the game winner as the Cents put an end to the Trail Smoke Eaters three-game win streak in a 6-4 victory on Saturday in Merritt.
Nick Wicks set up Granowicz in the slot and Merritt’s leading scorer wired home his 31st of the season past Smokies goalie Donovan Buskey to give the Cents a 5-4 lead with 11:09 to play in the third period.
The win gives the Cents the season-series edge winning four of six games against Trail this year. The victory puts Merritt, 33-15-4-3, just two points back of the first-place Penticton Vees in the Interior Division with three games remaining.
“It was a good stretch for us there,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “To get to a spot where we’ve won three in a row and our team is playing the best hockey we’ve played all year. I liked the way we played on Saturday. The game turned into a special teams battle at the end … but I liked the way our team played.”
Smokies d-man Trevor Zins gave Trail a 1-0 lead with a wrist shot through traffic that beat Centennials netminder Austin Roden for Zins’ 12th goal of the season at the 10:02 mark of the opening frame.
Merritt replied two minutes later when Mike Van Unen’s shot through a crowd eluded Buskey and tied the game at one.
Owen Ozar put Trail back out front when he jumped on a rebound off a Carter Jones shot and chipped in his 13th goal of the season and a 2-1 lead.
The Centennials Matthew Kopperud fired a puck from the point that was redirected by Granowicz for a power-play goal at the 1:45 mark to tie the game at 2-2.
The Smoke Eaters regained the lead on the power play at the 6:49 mark when Braeden Tuck sniped a shot from the right dot to make it 3-2. Tuck, a Calgary native, has reclaimed his scoring touch, tallying six points in four games after going six games with just one point.
“Once we made the change and put him with Carter (Jones) and Owen Ozar, now it allows him to be up on the rush and it puts him in a really different role … Sometimes just shifting things or asking players to do different things – it’s a perfect example of putting him in an offensive spot and he produces right away.”
Kopperud got it back, however, tying it once again with 6:17 to play in the middle stanza, as he fired a shot past a screened Trail goalie to send the game deadlocked at three into the third period.
The Cents took their first lead of the game 5:27 into the final frame on a Payton Matsui goal, but Chase Stevenson tied it 39 seconds later stuffing in a Zins rebound at the side of the net.
After Granowicz’s game winner, the Smoke Eaters had a late power play but couldn’t convert, and the Cents added an empty netter for the 6-4 final.
Merritt outshot Trail 28-24 and went 2-for-6 on the power play, while Trail was 2-for-7.
On Friday night the Smokies won their third straight game with a 4-2 win over the Langley Rivermen. Kent Johnson scored twice and Smokies affiliate player Chase Dafoe counted the game winner 2:32 into the second period, with Carter Jones adding an insurance marker in the third for the 4-2 win.
Trail enjoyed one of their longest win streaks of the season last week, winning three straight, which included a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory against the division-leading Penticton Vees.
“I just need our team to be playing good hockey going into the playoffs,” said Tambellini. “Our whole process from day 1, there were lots of changes, lots of work with our young guys, but now we’re starting to see the payoff, of guys accepting their roles, and really flourishing in what were asking them to do. A couple great additions at the deadline, it just gave us depth with adding Luke Gallagher and Donovan Buskey, and it really helped us stabilize and to get through injuries to Adam Marcoux or losing Kyle Chernenkoff. We’re happy with the wins but we still have two big games coming up.”
The victory leaves the Smoke Eaters just two points behind the sixth-place West Kelowna Warriors, with their final two games coming this weekend in a home-and-home with the same Warriors. Trail hosts West Kelowna at the Cominco Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m.