Saying Trail Smoke Eaters captain Philippe Lapointe is glad to be back in the line up, is a bit of an understatement.
Lapointe’s timely return from injury last week has kept the Smoke Eaters on a role, and in Wednesday’s match up at the Cominco Arena, the University of Michigan commit scored twice and added an assist in a 5-1 victory over the Wenatchee Wild.
“It’s awesome,” said Lapointe, who was injured in an exhibition game prior to the start of the season. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. Just to be back with the boys and to be on the ice is just amazing.”
Lapointe opened the scoring at 14:28 of the first period. Homegrown product Tyler Ghirardosi took possession of the puck on an aggressive forecheck and made a perfect feed for Lapointe in the slot. The Hinsdale, Ill. native fired a low shot past the Wild goalie for a 1-0 Trail lead.
“There’s a reason he’s our captain,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “He’s our leader with energy, with scoring, the kid does it all and he’s a great example of a guy making some big plays. He got it done for us tonight.”
Wenatchee, however, drew even at 5:30 on a Harrison Scott deflection that gave Smoke Eaters goalie Logan Terness little chance. The Wild outshot Trail 15-8 in the period, but key saves from Terness bought the Smokies time to regroup in the second frame.
“We had some great chances in the opening 10 minutes, but we kind of got into penalty trouble,” said Tambellini. “Not a great recipe for success but we got through it, our guys did a great job on the kill and gave us a chance to hang onto the game.”
Special teams proved key for Trail in the second period. After killing off a penalty to Max Kryski, the Smoke Eaters went on the power play. Trail pressured the ‘Backs relentlessly, until Owen Ozar gathered a Michael Colella shot off the back wall and banked it off goalie Noah Altman for a 2-1 Trail lead with six minutes remaining in the period.
Minutes later, the Wild’s Nick Cherkowski was called for boarding, and Kent Johnson made them pay tallying his 14th goal. Johnson took a pass from Diarmad DiMurro at the left hashmark, faked, then fired a shot over the glove of Altman to make it 3-1 with 63 seconds to go in the middle frame.
“Our PK has really been driving us for the last stretch,” said Tambellini. “You never want to get behind or short a man but these guys are doing a great job getting us through some really hard minutes.”
Trail could have went into a defensive shell and try to protect the lead, but they came out flying in the third. Just over two minutes in, Ghirardosi sent Lapointe in on all alone and he wired a shot low glove on Altman to increase the lead by three.
“It was big for me just to get the feel and the timing back in my game,” said Lapointe. “The first two games I felt just a little off beat, so to have a good game with Ozar and Ghirardosi, our chemistry was great tonight so I hope we can continue that going forward.”
DiMurro scored his fifth of the season and 19th point, second among BCHL defenceman, on a setup from Lapointe and Ozar, rifling a shot from the hashmark top shelf for the 5-1 final.
Trail’s power play went 3-for-6 on the night moving into second overall at 23.7 per cent, while the penalty kill was a perfect 7-for-7 and fourth in the BCHL with a devastating 89.1 per cent kill rate. Trail outshot Wenatchee 13-8 in the period, but the Wild held a slight 36-35 edge in shots for the game.
Lapointe earned first star honours, with DiMurro and Ozar selected second and third stars.
The 20-year-old captain is proving to be the leader coach Tambellini expected, not only has he contributed on the score sheet with three goals and an assist in three games, he’s also standing up for his teammates. Lapointe’s been in the middle of a few scrums, and stepped in and fought West Kelowna’s six-foot-three d-man Ryan Novecosky after his attempt to intimidate Trail’s leading scorer Johnson.
“It’s really hard just seeing all the success that the team had after that tough stretch, and just wanting to be a part of that,” said Lapointe. “All the guys in that room love the game of hockey and I do too, so that desire to be a good team, and just be in that room is huge.”
The game was as big as they come for a late October match up, with Trail and Wenatchee battling for position in the Interior Division and tied for third just a week ago.
With the win, 12-6-2-0 Trail now holds a six-point lead over the Interior Division rival Wild following a sweep of the West Kelowna Warriors combined with two Wenatchee losses to Salmon Arm last weekend.
“We’re a real confident team right now and it doesn’t come easy but we’re working hard right now so just everyday coming to the rink and wanting to get better, that’s the message in the room and guys are listening,” said Lapointe.”When you’ve got a great older group in there leading by example and young guys that are willing to listen, that’s a great recipe for success. We’ve got a good group in there.”
Trail looks forward to their toughest test this weekend when they travel to Salmon Arm to take on the league-leading Silverbacks at 15-3-1-0. The Silverbacks swept a two-game series in Trail back on Sept. 13-14 with a 4-2 victory and 3-2 OT win.
“It’s a massive chance,” said Tambellini. “Penticton and Salmon Arm, both have not seen our full team. So we’re not sure we’re going to have everyone healthy but we’re not the same team to start the year. We have big additions in (Cody) Schiavon and (Jameson) Murray, and now with Phil (Lapointe) and (Trevor) Isaksson back we look a little different. So good timing to be going into a big weekend playing really good hockey.”