Trail Smoke Eaters rookie Kent Johnson scored with 2:30 left in the game to lift the Smokies to a 3-2 victory over the Merritt Centennials on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena. Jim Bailey photo

Late goal propels the Trail Smoke Eaters to dramatic win over Merritt Centennials

Rookie Kent Johnson scored in the final minutes to lift the Trail Smoke Eaters to a 3-2 victory

The Trail Smoke Eaters pulled out a dramatic last minute victory over the Merritt Centennials on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena to take a 3-1 series lead in the best-of-seven Interior Division quarter-final.

“When we’re playing with the lead in the playoffs in Game 4, that’s what it’s going to look like,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “That was a playoff game. A 2-2 game and I just love the fact we were able to combat their momentum with a goal every time.”

With the game deadlocked at two, Kent Johnson scored the game-winning goal for the second night in a row, beating Cents’ goalie Austin Roden with two minutes and 30 seconds left in regulation to lift the Trail Smoke Eaters to a 3-2 victory.

The goal was carbon-copy of his Tuesday night tally in Trail’s 5-2 win over the Cents. Johnson took a pass from Trevor Zins, burst down the left wing, cut to the net, and lifted a backhand top shelf for the game winner.

Related read: Smoke Eaters take series lead with win over Centennials

With the win, the Smoke Eaters can eliminate the second-seeded Centennials when they meet on Friday in Merritt.

“A big thing we’ve been talking about is not too high, not too low,” said Trail captain Braeden Tuck. “We’re feeling good, but we know that we haven’t done anything yet. You have to win four games to win a series.”

Momentum swung back-and-forth throughout the game with both goalies tested early. Trail’s netminder Donovan Buskey set the stage, as he robbed the Centennials’ playoff-leading scorer Matthew Kopperud on the doorstep, with a magnificent glove save. Roden answered, and stymied Trail shooters on a few occasions to keep Trail off the scoreboard.

The Smoke Eaters went on a power play with just over 12 minutes left in the opening frame, but it was the Centennials who scored on a shorthanded tally by Payton Matsui.

The Cents forward jumped on a mishandled puck at the blue line and skated in all alone on the Trail goalie Donovan Buskey, firing the shot low, stick side. Buskey stopped the first attempt but Matsui banged in the rebound for a 1-0 lead at 11:20 of the first period.

“We know they like to pressure, and they’ve caught us a few times, but I think we’re aware of it now,” said Tuck. “They push hard, they have some speedy forwards, who if you give them some space they’ll jump on you. Hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson.”

Trail came back and tied it just over two minutes later when Smokies forward Tyler Ghirardosi broke into the Merritt zone and sent a cross-crease pass to Max Kryski, who shovelled in the rebound to tie the match at one.

The Centennials made it 2-1 on a Matthew Kopperud tally 2:15 into the second period, as the Cents forward capitalized on a poor clearing attempt to give Merritt another lead.

“There are going to be so many momentum shifts in a playoff game, and we know they have an outstanding team and they are going to push,” said Tambellini. “Our whole thing is to limit time and space for their top guys, make it frustrating for them to come through the neutral zone. Our defence was outstanding, just by consistently gapping up all night, and we gave ourselves a chance to make a play.”

Related read: Trail Smoke Eaters win big in Merritt

The Smokies answered when defenceman Powell Connor sent a stretch pass to Tuck and the Calgary native pulled off a nasty deke on the Cents goalie to tie it at 2-2 at 9:18 of the second period.

“I just came off the bench, and saw they were making a change, so I found some open ice, and Powell made an unbelievable pass, and I got a breakaway and scored from there,” said Tuck.

The Smokies had a few glorious chances to take the lead in the third period but Roden stood tall. At the other end, Buskey also continued his solid play, and remained calm, cool and collected despite a number of Merritt flurries.

After Johnson’s goal, the Smokies stayed determined and held off the Cents attack for the final 2:30, seizing a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series.

“It just shows the resilience of our group,” said Tuck. “This time of year no game is going to be an easy game, so you go into the third period, a tie game, and we’re happy to come out of it. It just shows the resilience and effort our guys can give.”

Trail outshot Merritt 34-26 and went 0-for-3 on the power play, and were 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.

Johnson earned the game’s first star, Matsui took second star honours, and Kryski the third star.

Trail now travels to Merritt for Game 5 on Friday, and, if necessary, will return to Trail on Saturday for Game 6.

Smoke Signals: Trail forward Chase Stevenson missed Wednesday’s game and will be out of the line up for Friday’s match in Merritt after receiving a two-game suspension for crashing the crease.

In other Interior Division match ups, the Cowichan Valley Capitals put the number-1 seed Penticton Vees on the ropes winning 3-0 on Wednesday to take a 3-1 lead in the series.

The Vernon Vipers also lead the Salmon Arm Silverbacks 3-1 after a 2-1 victory on Wednesday, while the Wenatchee Wild and West Kelowna Warriors series is deadlocked at 2-2.

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