It was the one chance the Trail Smoke Eaters had to impress the local fans in pre-season and the team didn’t disappoint.
The Smokies’ offence came to life in the team’s one-and-only home exhibition as they pounded the Merritt Centennials 8-3 on Saturday in front of a few loyal supporters.
“We wanted to put a good show on and get the buzz going around town,” said head coach and general manager Bill Birks.
It was Trail’s first win in four exhibition games. The Smokies lost back-to-back games against Prince George early last week and fell 4-2 in Merritt last Friday.
But preseason is for growing and the Smokies showed signs of sprouting a potent offence on Saturday.
“Those three games on the road we had lots of young kids in the lineup on all three nights,” said Birks. “They battled hard but the puck luck wasn’t there.”
He said the lineup was pretty much wahat fans will see when the team plays its first regular season game at the Cominco Arena on Sept. 21.
“It was close. There were a few kids that weren’t in there but for the most part it was probably two or three kids short of what we’re going to go with.”
Garrett McMullen led Trail with three goals and four points while linemates Scott Davidson and Brent Baltus collected nine assists between the two of them. Djorde Leposavic added two goals to the team’s total.
“I’m pretty happy with the way we started,” explained Birks. “We had a little lull, but the veteran guys that we brought in and the ones we got back from last year that are now veteran guys, they really stepped it up.
Merritt held a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes but the Smokies caught fire in the second highlighted by McMullen’s shorthanded tally in the final minute to vault them into a 4-2 lead.
Four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes wrapped up Trail’s exhibition season on a winning note.
Goaltenders Lyndon Stanwood and Braeden Krogfoss split the duties with Krogfoss keeping the Cents off the board in his 30 minutes of work.
But while the exhibition season officially ended for Trail, the work got a lot tougher for Birks who faced the unenviable task of releasing players on Sunday.
“I hate that part of the job,” he admitted. “It’s the worst part.”
Birks released four players – Rossland’s Archie McKinnon, who Birks is hoping to enlist as an affiliate player, Kyle Clayton, Justin McGaughey, Hunter Jenerou – to leave the team at 23 players, one over the 22-player roster limit.
And while releasing players always cast a pall over camp, certainly the performance of a trio of local products has generated a lot of enthusiasm.
Davidson, Jake Lucchini and Mitch Foyle, all earned raved reviews from Birks as well as spots on the 2012-13 roster.
“I’m pretty excited about the local talent we have,” he said. “Scott Davidson was unreal all preseason. He’s the full package.
“Lucchini battled hard and deserves a spot for sure. He was our best player by a mile on Friday in Merritt.
“And Mitch, who played with us last year, is still young but he played very well.”
Davidson, who has been nothing short of stellar during camp, admitted he’s surprise at how he’s been able to adapt to the BCHL style.
“It’s definitely a step up,” he said, adding playing on a line with veterans McMullen and Baltus really helped.
Davidson said Saturday’s game, his first in a Smokies’ jersey at the Cominco Arena, was special.
“It’s exciting to be playing in front of friends in my hometown.”
Lucchini agreed there were some pre-game jitters on Saturday.
“It was pretty nerve wracking. The game is so much more high-tempo.”
Lucchini said he focused on working hard every shift and doing the little things right to get the coaches’ attention. He did and now he’s on the Smokies roster.
“I’m very pleased about that.”
Birks added that players such as Adam Wheeldon, Brendon Heinrich and Joren Johnson all hail from the West Kootenay and give the Smokies good regional representation.
The Smokies also play in Prince George Sept.14 and Merritt Sept. 15 before finally returning to the friendly confines of the Cominco Arena for the regular season home opener on Sept. 21 versus the West Kelowna Warriors.