The Trail Smoke Eaters refuse to go gentle into that good night, and kept their playoff hearts still beating Tuesday at the Cominco Arena with a character 3-2 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Harlan Orr scored the winner midway through the third period to keep the Smokies in playoff contention in the Interior division standings, as the Vernon Vipers came back to beat the Surrey Eagles 3-2 in the second overtime Tuesday night to stay one point ahead of Trail (48 points), while the idle Merritt Centennials drop one point behind.
“I’m just trying to soak it all in,”said Smoke Eaters interim coach Curtis Toneff. “It’s not really about what I’m doing or what we’re doing as coaches, it’s about these guys that are starting to believe here. It’s pretty cool, and if we get a little help from Wenatchee here Friday, it will be bumping on Saturday.”
The Smoke Eaters need the Wenatchee Wild to beat Vernon on Friday in order to still have a playoff chance in their final game against the Vipers on Saturday at the Cominco Arena. To advance, they’ll also need the Cents to drop one of their two remaining games against Wenatchee and Penticton.
Since the dismissal of former coach and GM Nick Deschenes, the team has rallied, rolling off three straight wins, including a dramatic 5-4 overtime victory in Salmon Arm Saturday to stay in contention after a tough January.
“For whatever reason, they’re having fun again I think,” said Toneff. “And if you’re not having fun when you’re playing this game, there’s no point in playing it.”
With the game tied 2-2 in the third, the teams traded chances early but a penalty to Salmon Arm gave Trail an opportunity. Kienan Scott worked the puck back to the point, and with Harlan Orr and Connor Brown-Maloski creating havoc in front of netminder Brandon Kegler, Orr tipped a shot by defenceman Evan MacEachern that somehow eluded the mass of humanity to make it 3-2 with 11:11 on the clock.
“In the second intermission we felt good,” said Toneff. “It was a good spot to be at 2-2. We just took it shift by shift and got kind of a greasy one from a 20-year-old guy, and Bailey shut the door and had a great game.”
Scott opened the scoring for Trail on the power play, taking a pass from Bennett Morrison down low, and firing a laser from the right boards under the cross bar at 11:19 for his 24th goal of the season. Four minutes later, Nick Halloran sent Max Newton and Jake Kauppila in on a 2-on-1. Kauppila went hard to the net and Newton sent a perfect pass across the crease and onto his stick for a 2-0 lead. It was Kauppila’s 16th tally of the season and fifth goal in three games.
“Me, Newton, and Halloran are actually working really well together, and I’m the benefactor of some good passing from those two, and I just try to get into spots where they can give it to me,” said Kauppila, a Bentley University commit.
The Silverbacks came out flying in the second and Bailey MacBurnie almost single-handedly thwarted their attack, stopping Josh Laframboise on a breakaway one minute into the period, and Taro Hirose on another breakaway just minutes later. The Backs finally broke through when Carson Bolduc was sent in all alone and wired a shot over the glove of MacBurnie to cut the lead to one with 5:25 remaining. Eighty seconds later Laframboise collected his own rebound and slid it under the Trail goalie to tie it. But after Kauppila was sent off for hooking, MacBurnie bounced back, making several big saves on the Salmon Arm power play to keep it tied heading into the third.
“We knew they were going to come hard in the second period, we challenged our guys to be good in the second, but Salmon Arm had more push,” said Toneff.
The Smokies hung on in the third, getting more key saves from MacBurnie, but also keeping Salmon Arm’s chances to the perimeter and neutralizing the Backs speed and aggressive play.
The character finish was highlighted by 18-year-old Smokie forward Kale Howarth going toe-to-toe with six-foot-three, 205-pound forward Nick Hutchison with 44 seconds left on the clock.
MacBurnie stopped 48 shots and was named the game’s first star, with Kauppila taking second star honours and Kegler third star for Salmon Arm with 36 saves on the night.
“It was huge,” said Kauppila. “We knew that our lives were on the line here, and it was do or die, and it has been for a while now, so we had to play to our advantage, and we went up and they came back but I thought our guys really stuck with it.”
Trail’s final home game goes Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena, and depending on the results from the Vernon–Wenatchee game Friday and Merritt’s final two contests, the Smoke Eaters could still be playing for a playoff spot.