The Merritt Centennials won both ends of a home-and-home against the Trail Smoke Eaters on the weekend.
In two close matches, the Smokies fell 5-3 to the Cents in Merritt on Friday before dropping a 3-2 match at home Saturday to fall to 1-3-0. Despite the losses the Smokies newly minted captain Connor Brown-Maloski says the team is staying positive.
“It’s early in the season,” says the Kamloops native. “Two points are big, at the end of the season it’s always close so it hurts a bit, but we still have to work out a few bumps and stuff here.”
On Saturday, Merritt’s Brett Jewell caused a turnover at the Smokies blue line and fed a wide open Chase Bell down low who backhanded a quick shot past Trail goalie Zach Dyment to break a 2-2 tie and net the winner two minutes and 25 seconds into the second period.
“Last night we had five different scores, tonight three,” said Cents’ coach Joe Martin. “That’s important too for our group that the scoring gets spread out, and the new guys are feeling part of it, and the veterans are happy about their start to the season, so it’s really important that everyone feels a part of it.”
After going 4-0-1 in the preseason, the wins leave the Cents unbeaten this season, 2-0-1, with a 2-2 tie against the Prince George Spruce Kings to open the campaign.
“It feels good,” said Martin. “This was probably our hardest game. Trail hasn’t been kind to us, last year it was always tough coming here and getting two points so happy about the way that it went tonight.”
Trail jumped out to a promising start in the first period carrying the play in the early going but two quick goals in two minutes by rookie Tyler Pietrowski and veteran Michael Regush put the Cents up 2-0.However, the Smokies came back and tied the game before the period was out.
Ross Armour netted his second of the season, banging in a rebound off a Josh Laframboise redirection to bring the Smokies within one at 8:45 of the first period. Then with just under four minutes to play in the opening frame Ryan Moon took a heads up backpass from Braeden Tuck and wired it glove side on Colten Lancaster to score his first goal as a Smoke Eater.
The Smokies outshot Merritt 13-11 in the opening frame, but Dyment made several big saves in the second period to keep the match close as Merritt stole the momentum in the middle frame outshooting Trail 12-8. Trail’s opportunities were limited in the third but they came close hitting the post midway through the period and getting robbed by Lancaster on a rebound in close to keep the Cents unbeaten this season.
‘We’re just trying to figure things out so hopefully we can get things going into next weekend,” said Brown-Maloski. “We didn’t play a bad game, we need to work on a few things but it’s heading in the right direction for sure.”
Merritt outshot Trail 31-29 with Lancaster earning first star honours, Dyment second star, and Moon the third star. While disappointing for the Smokies the Trail captain sees it as part of a greater learning curve for the team.
“I just think it’s all mental,” said Brown-Maloski. “The guys have to be ready to go every shift. It’s the small battles, every 30 seconds you’re out there you just have to win your battle. It’s early in the season and we have a lot of young guys, so just have to sharpen up a little bit and I think it will come.”
In contrast to Trail’s five returning veterans, Merritt boasts a veteran lineup with 13 players returning from last year’s team including university commits Regush (Cornell), Zach Court (Nebraska), Cade Gleekel (St. Lawrence), and Zach Mesta (Quinnipiac).
“It’s huge,” said Martin. “We’re not getting these wins right now without these veteran guys. Last year we had five guys to start the year and this year it feels like we have a whole room of veterans.”
On Friday night, Smokie forward Luke Santerno had a goal and an assist and Brown-Maloski added two assists in a losing effort as Merritt defeated Trail 5-3. Linden Marshall made his first start in goal for the Smokies and stopped 34 shots, while Jacob Berger blocked 36 for the Cents.
In a back-and-forth match, Regush opened the score 73 seconds into the first period, but goals from Santerno and Ryan Murphy gave Trail a 2-1 lead. However, the wild first period ended with Merritt leading 3-2 on goals from Ryan Van Ulen and Pietrowski.
The Centennials Tyler Ward put Merritt up 4-2 before Troy Ring brought the Smokies within one, but Merritt’s Berger shut the Smokies down stopping 17 shots in the final frame, and added an insurance marker from Ryan Roseboom 6:37 into the third period for the 5-3 win.
“I told our guys, I know it’s not realistic, but I expect to win every night. I know it’s not going to happen, but you might as well strive for perfection, we expect it.”
Trail will travel to Chilliwack next weekend for the BCHL Showdown with games against the Powell River Kings and the Victoria Grizzlies.