Owen Ozar netted his first BCHL hat trick and Michael Colella scored the game winner for the Trail Smoke Eaters in a physical 5-2 victory over the Merritt Centennials on Saturday night at the Cominco Arena.
Close to 2,600 fans packed the Trail Memorial Centre and hundreds came early to meet former Major League Baseball player Jason Bay and get a signed limited edition baseball card from the former slugger.
Colella tallied his 17th on the season, wiring a shot from the slot past the blocker of Centennials goalie Tanner Marshall with 38 seconds to play in the second period to give the Smoke Eaters a 3-2 lead.
The victory was the Smokies second in as many nights after a five-goal outburst in the third period sealed a 6-3 Smoke Eaters victory in Merritt Friday night.
“I didn’t like our starts on both nights,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “When you go up against teams where their plan is to lock it down, and give up some shots. Besides you leave your goaltender cold, when he’s not seeing a lot of pucks, then he sees one and it’s a Grade A chance. We did that both nights, so I didn’t like the way we started but we hung in there and found a way to fight back.”
Trail dominated the first period, but Merritt found their way to a 2-1 lead despite being outshot 22-6. Chase Nemeth opened the scoring for Merritt at 11:32 beating Trail goalie Logan Terness with a quick shot blocker side. Smoke Eaters recent addition Carson Briere scored his second goal of the season and first on home ice, as he slipped one short side on Marshall to tie the game a minute later. Evan Benwell put the Cents up 2-1 with 6:10 to play in the first, on an unassisted effort.
Marshall was brilliant in the first, shutting the back door on a few occasions as Trail went 0-for-3 on power play opportunities in the opening frame.
“It’s a frustrating night for a lot of your offensive guys who are getting a lot of looks and it’s not going your way, but the top guys can just calm themselves down and stay with the process. Our guys did a really good job of not going rogue but staying in our power-play structure, continuing to put shots there, and sooner or later you wear them down and we end up with five on the board and the job gets done.”
The Smoke Eaters finally broke through on the man advantage when a perfect point shot from Powell Connor was redirected out of mid-air by Ozar for his first of the night, 6:32 into the middle frame.
“Merritt they play hard,” said Ozar. “Each game our start was pretty rough, we didn’t come ready to play, but I think once we got our feet moving and started making plays we got better. But we have to work on having a better start for sure.”
The Centennials played a better period in the second despite trailing 3-2, but the wheels fell off again for Merritt as penalties came back to haunt them in the third.
Trail went up 4-2 at 7:22, after Marshall misplayed a puck behind the net, leaving it for Johnson who swooped in stole the puck and fed Ozar on the doorstep for the Prince Albert native’s second of the night.
After Merritt forward Brayden Clark was ejected for cross checking Johnson following the Ozar goal, and Brophy Dunne sent to the showers for a blow to the head, the Smokies capitalized on the two-man advantage. Smokes captain Philippe Lapointe fed Johnson at the top of the slot, who found Ozar at the back door. The Denver University commit slipped in the rebound for his 19th of the season and first BCHL hat trick at 6:35.
“I’ve gotten two goals a couple times, so I really wanted the third one,” said Ozar. “We got the 5-on-3, and I told Johnson, ‘I haven’t got three yet in a game so look for me.’ I was just hiding back door. I hit the post on the first one, and so the puck was just sitting there for me to put it in.”
The heated play culminated with Smoke Eaters defenceman Kyle Pow going toe-to-toe with Merritt battler Olson Werenka, who was looking for a dance partner after cross-checking Powell Connor from behind.
Ozar’s hat trick launches him into second place in BCHL scoring with 19 goals and 51 points, three points ahead of Colella and 25 points back of league-leading scorer Johnson with 29 goals and 76 points.
“Oz had been fantastic,” said Tambellini. “He’s probably been our most consistent two-way guy the entire year. He’s second in league scoring and definitely establishing himself as a dominant two-way player in our league.”
Trail outshot Merritt 52-28, went 2-for-10 on the power play and 4-for-4 on the penalty kill. Ozar was named the game’s first star, with Johnson earning second star for his three assists, and Marshall the third star after facing more than 100 shots over the two games. Briere had a goal and an assist and was named the Fortis Energy Player of the Game.
In Friday’s match, Merritt jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead, and led 2-1 after two. But five third-period goals from Johnson (2), Cody Schiavon, Briere and Ozar lifted the Smoke Eaters to a 6-3 victory.
Johnson had a four-point night, while Terness stopped 42 shots in the Smoke Eaters first game back from a 13-day holiday break.
Trail improves their record to 25-13-2-1-1 and sit in second place, eight points back of the Penticton Vees in the Interior Division. Trail plays their third straight game against the Centennials on Tuesday at the Cominco Arena, before facing off against the Vees in a home-and-home tilt next weekend.
“The fans are going to get their money’s worth on Tuesday just as they did tonight,” said Tambellini. “Merritt’s a team battling for their life. They play a scrappy style, and that’s the way they’re going to survive, and good for them, they play hard. So I’m sure Tuesday will be no different than tonight.”
The puck drop for Tuesday’s Smoke Eaters vs Centennials game goes at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.