The historic first game between the Trail Smoke Eaters and Selkirk College Saints at Cominco Arena Tuesday was anything but a defensive gem; however it was good, fast-paced hockey, at times spirited, with plenty of goals and penalties to keep the crowd of close to 500 entertained.
In the end, the younger Smokie legs eventually prevailed as the home team pulled out an 8-6 victory.
Smoke Eater defenceman Nathan Browne was awarded the winner, when breaking in with Scott Davidson on a 2-on-1, the Saints defenceman swiped the puck away from Browne, inadvertently shooting it right between the pads of his own goalie, a stunned Chris Hurry.
“I thought we played well for the most part,” said Trail head coach and GM Bill Birks. “Some kids want to impress the coaching staff by doing fancy stuff, but that’s just not the game. You have to play simple and hard, and once you get back to that I thought we were good.”
Defensive breakdowns on either end often left the goalies at the mercy of numerous breakaways and odd-man rushes, a cause for concern for Saints head coach Jeff Dubois.
“Neither coaching staff walks away from an 8-6 game seeing what you want to see,” said Dubois. “You’d like the defence even this early in the season to be a little tighter than it was.”
The Smokies opened the scoring at 7:31 of the first when Adam Ulfsax banged in a loose puck past the Saints netminder. Trail native Garrett Kucher would reply for Selkirk getting his first of two on the night, when he took a neat breakaway flip pass from Matthew Luongo, and beat goalie Dustin Nikkel glove side.
Bryce Knapp would counter for the Smokies, taking a pass from Davidson in front of the net and making a nice move to his forehand to beat a sprawling Hurry.
However, Kucher would strike again, tying it at 16:06 on a great individual effort, as he skated out of the corner stickhandled around a defender, through the top of the crease, and sliding it under an outstretched Nikkel.
“It’s always good to produce out on the ice, but I’d rather succeed as a team more than an individual,” said Kucher, who had a sizeable contingent of supporters in the stands. “It’s been about 12 years since I’ve been back here, so I knew most of the fans and it was good having my family up there cheering me on.”
The Smokies recent addition Tyson Wittala would finish the scoring in the opening frame, netting his first as a Smokie to give the home team a 3-2 lead.
Knapp would make it 4-2 at the 2:50 mark, scoring his second of the game unassisted on a great individual effort. Knapp was impressive playing on the left wing with Jesse Knowler at centre, and Davidson on the right side. He returns to the Smokie lineup after missing almost all of last season with injury.
“It feels really good, I’m just really excited to be back here,” said Knapp. “After all the injuries I had last year, it just felt good to be back on the ice doing what I love to do.”
The Saints Cody Fidgett replied, wristing a bullet over the glove of Nikkel at 13:17. However, Braden Pears would restore the two-goal lead, making it 5-3 on a screened shot from the point at 14:57 of the second.
But the Saints stormed back scoring twice on back-to-back breakaways on goalie Nate Rabbitt who came in midway through the second. Former Smoke Eater Darnell Dyck made it 4-3 and a short-handed marker by Scott Swiston tied it at 5-5 heading into the final frame.
“I don’t think our team realized how good they were,” said Birks. “They’re big, they’re fast especially for only being on the ice a couple times, (they’re) physical and play pretty good systems.”
The Saints would take a 6-5 lead at 2:51 into the third period when Markus McCrea walked in and snapped the puck past Rabbitt. But Pears would net his second of the night when he picked up a rebound in front of the Saints net and beat Hurry glove side to tie it midway through the third. After Browne’s winner, Blaine Caton would get the insurance marker on a pretty pass from Linden Horswill.
The Smokies outshot the Saints 32-20. The exhibition match was a good test for both teams although the Saints may have been at a slight disadvantage considering they had skated as a team for the first time on Sunday.
“The Smokies look like they came into camp in shape, and a handful of our guys did too, but anyone who was watching could tell there was a few guys running out of gas,” said Dubois.
“Trail took full advantage of the opportunities that they generated and we gave them, and that’s what you get at the end of the night.”
As for the Smokies head coach, he was suitably impressed with the compete level and physicality of the Selkirk Saints team.
“I thought it was a great test, that’s a pretty good hockey team. I can see why they won last year. Jeff (Dubois) does a great job recruiting guys. They’re going to be good again this year.”
Birks sat out a few veterans like team captain Adam Wheeldon, goalie Adam Todd, and D-man Braden Jones, giving young players a chance to impress.
Final selections won’t be made until after exhibition games in Penticton and Merritt.
It may be early, but like last season, the same questions and concerns emerge.
“It’s nice to win, but our goals against was a big thing last year, and that’s going to be a focal point for us (this year). When we get the puck we’re good, when we don’t have the puck we’re not very good,” added Birks.
BCHL Notes: Lethal Viper
Rookie forward and Trail native Dallas Calvin led the Vernon Vipers to a 7-5 preseason win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
The former Beaver Valley Nitehawk netted two goals and two assists for a four-point night to pace the Snakes to its first preseason win. The six-foot-five Trail product racked up 31-43-74 in 40 games last season with the Nitehawks.
Ex-Viper and former Trail Smoke Eater AP Dylan Walchuk, entering his first season with the University of Calgary Dinos, had a dream assignment filling in for Joe Thornton during Team Canada’s walk-through at its Olympic orientation camp Monday in Calgary. The 21-year-old had a stall between Boston Bruins’ winger Brad Marchand and Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby. “I think I can be first line with Sid,” Walchuk joked with The Calgary Herald. “I need a good start. I need to have a pretty solid season.”