The Trail Smoke Eaters outscored the Merritt Centennials in two of three periods, but couldn’t overcome a 3-0 first period deficit in a 6-4 setback in Merritt on Wednesday.
“You have to be prepared and you have to be ready to play off the hop, because things happen quick,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “I’d say we weren’t completely prepared.”
Stephen Seeger took a breakaway pass from Zak Bowles and walked in all alone on Trail AP goaltender Patrick Zubick to score what proved to be the winning goal at 6:21 of the second period to give the Cents a 5-1 lead.
The Smoke Eaters were not only shorthanded on the ice with four affiliate players dressed, they were down two men on the bench, as assistant coaches Barry Zanier and Craig Clair were unable to make the trip due to work commitments.
“It was a bit of a tough management of the bench because I was by myself there. So there were some mismatches, because they have a pretty good first line, and they took advantage of that for sure.”
Merritt’s Rhett Wilcox, John Schiavo, and Josh Teves would strike for three goals over a four-minute span to give the Centennials a 3-0 lead, outshooting the Smokies 14-12 in the opening period.
Colin Grannary made it 4-0, rippling the mesh 3:30 into the second period, before Craig Martin would get Trail on the board on a setup from Conner Wynne and AP Brody Jennings at 4:28.
After Seeger made it 5-1, Martin would reply again 70 seconds later, burying his second of the period at 7:31. Then with Trail’s AP Tyler Podgorenko in the box for holding, Dallas Calvin would feed Martin who completed his natural hat trick with a shorthanded marker at 10:21 to make it 5-3. It was the 16th goal and 35th point of the season for Martin who missed 17 games due to injury.
“He was buzzing, and he’s got a really good shot, and it’s deceptive. He was able to find spots on the ice to get it off, and they were all really nice goals so definitely a big positive for him.”
The third would be a hard fought period as Trail attempted to battle back, but Jonah Imoo stood tall between the pipes stopping 14 of 15 shots in the period while the Cents managed nine against Trail.
The Cents’ Bowles would extend the lead to 6-3 at the 12:14 mark, out-waiting Zubick on a breakaway deke to give the Cents the 6-3 lead.
Trail would pull their goaltender with over three minutes remaining, and with the extra man, Sheldon Brett was able to get one back, but that’s as close as the Smokies would come as the Cents held on for the 6-4 victory.
Trail outshot Merritt 40-34 and went 0-for-3 on the power play, while Merritt was 0-for-6. Drawing twice the number of penalties as Merritt is a concern, yet, for some reason Trail on average sees fewer calls going the other way.
Trail has the second least number of power play opportunities in the league at 182, with West Kelowna, 239, having 57 more power play chances than Trail on the season, an average of over one per game. Merritt at 213, and Penticton, 215, have enjoyed 31 and 33 more extra-man chances respectively. Only Salmon Arm has fewer with 170.
While coach Deschenes avoids any criticisms of the referees, he finds it curious one of the most penalized teams in the league, Merritt, receives so few penalties when they play the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Nevertheless, the Cents earned a crucial two points in a tight race for the playoffs in the Interior division.
With the victory, Merritt kept pace with the West Kelowna Warriors in a tie for third place with 54 points, four up on Salmon Arm who took a pair of games from the Vernon Vipers last weekend, and will face the Warriors and Cents in two huge games this weekend.
With 10 games remaining in the season, Trail will return home to face the Centennials on Friday and the struggling Surrey Eagles on Saturday.
“The great thing is we have them (Merritt) coming in on Friday at home, and it’s going to be a good battle, and I think we are going to be in good shape.”
Bryan Basilico returned to action Wednesday, and Evan MacEachern is expected to play this weekend. Bryan Gerstenfeld is also expected to return to the line up next week.
The puck drop for Friday and Saturday at the Cominco Arena is at 7:30 p.m.