The Trail Smoke Eaters salute the fans as they closed out their season with a 4-2 win over the Penticton Vees before one of the largest crowds of the season on Sunday at the Cominco Arena.

The Trail Smoke Eaters salute the fans as they closed out their season with a 4-2 win over the Penticton Vees before one of the largest crowds of the season on Sunday at the Cominco Arena.

Smokies end campaign on high note

Over 1,600 fans came out to watch the Trail Smoke Eaters finish off the season.

Over 1,600 fans came out to watch the Trail Smoke Eaters finish off the season, and the orange and black didn’t disappoint as they ended the year on a winning note Sunday with a 4-2 victory over the Penticton Vees.

Trail won three of four against Penticton to end the season, but the victories weren’t enough to lift them into the playoffs, as the Salmon Arm SilverBacks locked up the fourth and final playoff spot with a 5-4 overtime win against Merritt Centennials Friday, and solidified it with a 5-3 victory over the Prince George Spruce Kings in its last regular season game Saturday.

“This group of kids is pretty special,” said an emotional Bill Birks after the game Sunday. “They’re all tight, they all hang together, they’re all friends – they deserve better.”

The Smokies played their hearts out down the stretch winning seven of their last 10 games, but back-to-back January losses to the ‘Backs turned out to be the difference.

“It’s a hard lesson to learn for these kids, but hopefully next year when they get going right away, they’ll remember how they felt Saturday or Friday night when Salmon Arm won,” said Birks. “When you piss away points during the year its hard to get them back.”

The Smokies were much improved from last season, and played hard, entertaining hockey. If not for the odd lapse, the Smokies could have been a very dangerous team in the playoffs, having beaten Penticton 4-3 in its season series. The Smokies finished with 25 more points than the previous season, winning 15 more games, scoring 20 more goals, and allowing 66 fewer goals against.

Smokies captain Garrett McMullen, a Rochester Institute of Technology commit, noticed the difference  not just on the ice, but in the dressing room as well.

“(This year) we’ver got that attitude, more of an expect-to-win team,” said McMullen. “Last year was a little different, but this year everyone has that mindset . . . It was a great year, I mean the feeling in the locker room, it doesn’t feel like we’re not making playoffs, it sucks that we aren’t, but it’s not like we didn’t put the effort in. The boys are walking out of here with their heads high and proud to be part of this team.”

Trail is losing four quality veteran players in McMullen, Brent Baltus, Tyler Berkholtz, and Brett Hambrook, but should have an impressive core of players returning for the 2013-14 season.

“We’ll have a really good core, but those four kids we’re losing are pretty invaluable pieces and hard to replace. . . Off the ice its amazing, they’re not just good on the ice but everywhere we go. I’m excited about the core group coming back, it just sucks that we’re not playing anymore,” said Birks.

The team will look to players like Adam Wheeldon, Luke Sandler, Jesse Knowler, Marley Keca, and Scott Davidson to fill the leadership and scoring void left by the outgoing veterans.

“We have a great group of guys coming back,” said Keca. “I know everyone says that every year, but honestly this year we have so many young guys that have so much upside, even young guys that may have been perimeter guys earlier this year stepping in and having a big impact so I’m looking forward to that.”

Brent Baltus finished the season with a second allstar team nod, leading the Smokies in scoring and averaging over a point a game with 24 goals and 52 points in 47 games.

“It’s been an emotional last couple days, but it’s good to end on a high note and I’m excited for what lies ahead,” said Baltus.

The Nanaimo native is heading north next season to play for the NCAA Div. 1 University of Alaska-Anchorage, not far from where his mother grew up in Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Smokies will also be on the lookout for a new assistant coach as Brent Heaven is unable to continue due to work commitments. As for Birks’ return as head coach and general manager, a decision will be made by the Smokie executive early this week.

As for the game, Castlegar native Jesse Knowler netted the winning goal when he took a nice pass in the slot from Shane Poulsen and beat Vees netminder Nic Renyard five-hole to put the Smokies up 3-0 at 5:45 of the second period.

After a scoreless first period, Marley Keca got the Smokies on the board at 4:11 when he fired a shot from centre ice that caromed off the stanchion and bounced past a diving Renyard, as he attempted to get back to the crease.

As rare as those types of goals are, it was the second time in as many weeks that the Vees goalie Renyard was the victim of a lively Cominco Arena bounce.

Sandler would make it 2-0 when he took a pass from Riley McDougall, burst down the left wing flew around the defenceman, and fired a backhand over the glove of Renyard just 50 seconds later.

Following Knowlers goal, the Vees Jarrod Boultbee would make it 3-1, converting a 2-on-1 from Ryan Gropp.

Keca notched his second of the night, wiring a perfect pass from Riley McDougall top shelf to put the home team up 4-1 with just one second remaining in the middle frame.  Keca also received the first star nod for his second and third goals of the season, while Sandler was named second star.

Brett Harris scored a late Penticton marker to make it 4-2, as the Smokies closed out their season in  front of an appreciative audience.

Lyndon Stanwood got the start in net for the Smokies, making 27 saves and getting third-star honours in the win, while Trail fired 47 shots at the Vees net.

Penticton meanwhile will play Salmon Arm in the first round of the playoffs Friday while Merritt Centennials play West Kelowna Warriors in the best of seven series.