The Vernon Vipers dashed the Trail Smoke Eaters hopes of a return to the BCHL Interior Division final with a 5-2 victory on Monday.
Trail’s Game-7 loss brings an end to an inspired playoff run, which electrified crowds and restored faith in a young Smoke Eaters team that had its share of ups-and-downs over the regular season.
“I’m so proud of that group,” said head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “For that group to go on the second longest playoff season in Trail’s franchise history in the BCHL. I was so impressed the way that group could come together in such a short amount of time.”
Despite finishing in seventh place in the Interior, the upstart Smoke Eaters upset Number-2 seed Merritt Centennials in five games in Round-1 and forced Game 7 against Vernon in the division semifinal with a thrilling Game-6 victory at home on Saturday.
“It takes time, in those rebuild years, but we got to a point where that team could have won a lot of rounds. You always get a sense at the end of the year, whether they want to go home or they want to keep playing, and those kids wanted to keep playing, you could just feel it every time you’re around them.”
Trail’s turn-around started in earnest with the acquisitions of defenceman Luke Gallagher and goalie Donovan Buskey at the Jan. 10 trade deadline. Even without veteran goalie Adam Marcoux, who was lost to injury, Buskey backstopped the Smokies to a strong finish to the regular season, and following a Game-1 loss, the Smokies went on a six-win romp in the playoffs.
“No one expected our group to do anything,” said Tambellini. “Which was fine on the outside, but on the inside we knew. No one was going to see us coming, because the only ones who knew how good our team was were the coaching staff and the players. As a coach, that’s exactly what you want is for people to underestimate how good your hockey team is and how hard they work.
“But’s it’s disappointing in the fact that if we got through this round, this is a team that could have taken it all the way.”
In Monday’s match, Vernon dominated in the early going, scoring three times in the first period, including Jagger Williamson’s game-winning goal. The Vipers veteran forward broke in and beat Trail goalie Adam Marcoux with 3:18 remaining in the first period to deliver a palpable blow to the Smokies hopes and lift the Vipers to a 3-1 lead heading into the middle frame.
“That was the first game when we didn’t have a good first period,” said Tambellini. “We found our legs probably in the middle of the second, but you get behind a few and you’re not able to get it back.”
The Vipers Josh Latta opened the scoring when Matt Kowalski sent Latta down the right side and he fired a low shot stick side for a 1-0 lead at 12:24 of the first.
The Vipers went up 2-0, on a Ben Helgeson tip-in off a shot from Nicholas Cherkowski less than two minutes later.
Hayden Rowan got the Smoke Eaters on the board on a power-play goal, deflecting a slick slap-pass from Carter Jones past Vipers goalie Aiden Porter at 3:52, but 34 seconds later Williamson put the Vipers up 3-1.
Carver Watson gave the Vipers a 4-1 lead five minutes into the second, sending Marcoux to the bench in favour of Smokies backup Donovan Buskey as Vernon outshot Trail 22-10 through two periods.
Smokies captain Braeden Tuck gave the Smokies momentary life in the third, scoring 3:15 into the final frame to cut the lead to two. The Smokies pulled Buskey in the final two minutes for an extra attacker, but Latta ended it, scoring into the empty net with 44 seconds remaining.
“Give them a lot of credit, that series was exactly what it should have been, a seven-game series, where you get to take it right down to the wire. It was an outstanding series.”
Vernon outshot the Smoke Eaters 29-19, with the Vipers going 0-for-2 on the power play and the Smokies 1-for-2.
The Smoke Eaters gave a farewell nod to veteran Marcoux, who was reinserted following the empty netter, to finish his BCHL career on the ice. Also, graduating are veterans Tuck, Spencer McLean, Ryan Chernenkoff, and Trevor Zins.
“I talked about it at the start of the year, ‘I need to build this team with great people,’” he added. “I was so fortunate to have amazing captains this year. Those guys were so important to us having success just because they wanted to win so bad and wanted to do it right every day. Then you go through the veterans, and it’s hard to single out one guy, but that’s just it, it’s the characteristic of a good team.”
The Vipers move on to the Interior final against the Wenatchee Wild that is scheduled to start Friday in Wenatchee.
The Smoke Eaters will regroup and prepare for their Spring Identification Camp, Apr. 5-7.