The Merritt Centennials continued their playoff charge with a convincing 8-1 victory over the Trail Smoke Eaters Tuesday night in Merritt.
The Centennials’ Diego Cugliatta netted a hat trick including the eventual winning goal at 9:16 of the opening period, as Merritt, who is 3-1-1 in their last five games, pulled within one point of Salmon Arm for the final Interior division playoff spot.
The Cents jumped out to a 5-0 lead on a pair of goals from Scott Patterson, Cugliatta, Gavin Gould, and a shorthanded tally from Adam Tracey, before Trail’s Zane Shwartz put the Smokies on the board at 18:12 of the second period.
Another shorthanded goal from Cuglietta one minute into the third frame made it 6-1 and Rhett Wilcox and Cuglietta would round out the scoring for the Cents.
Trail goalie Dustin Nikkel stopped 27 of 33 shots before AP Nate Rabbit came on in relief at 17:09 of the third and blocked 6-of-8.
The race for the final Interior division playoff spot is shaping up to be another exciting finish. With 12 games remaining, Merritt sits in fifth spot, a point behind the SilverBacks and four back of Vernon with the Cents enjoying a game-in-hand on the Vipes. Merritt’s final three games of the season include two versus Salmon Arm and their final match against Vernon.
The Smoke Eaters meanwhile travel to Vernon Friday to take on the Vipers, and return to Cominco Arena Saturday for another tilt with the Centennials at 7:30 p.m.
With 9-of-10 games remaining against Interior division opponents Trail will look to make a difference.