The surging Merritt Centennials defeated the Trail Smoke Eaters on Tuesday in a 5-3 victory at the Cominco Arena.
Merritt has Trail’s number this year. Following a Trail OT win in their opening match of the season, Merritt has won three straight games from the Smoke Eaters in the past month including a 4-0 victory in their last visit on Dec. 2.
“I think this past month, we’ve all been playing very, very well, as a team, I just don’t think we’re getting the results we want,” said Smoke Eater captain Troy Ring. “Personally, I’m very proud of everyone, with what we’ve gone through this month. Everyone has stepped up, unfortunately, the results just haven’t been there.”
For the third straight game, Cents’ goalie Jacob Berger was the biggest roadblock holding the Smoke Eaters scoreless for 111 minutes, and making several big saves through the first two periods on Tuesday to keep the Smokies off the board.
“He (Berger) kept us in it, and made some unreal saves,” said Merritt assistant coach Matt Samson after the game. “We knew they (Smoke Eaters) were going to be better. They had a deeper line up than the last couple times we saw them and I’m really proud the way the guys played.”
The Cents took a 3-0 lead into the third period with goals from Matthew Kopperud, affiliate player Joel Patsey, and Mathieu Gosselin despite being outshot 25-21 through two periods.
The Smoke Eaters recent acquisition, Mack Byers, scored his first goal for Trail, finally beating Berger with nine minutes left on the clock when he converted a Ryan Murphy shot and favourable bounce off the back board for the Smokies first tally to cut the lead to 3-1.
However, Zach Zorn netted the winner, jumping on another erratic carom and firing the puck into an empty net to make it 4-1 Cents with 2:31 remaining. The Smokies answered, however, just 13 seconds later when Daine Dubois popped in a Blake Sidoni pass to cut the lead to two.
After Trail pulled goalie Adam Marcoux for the extra man, Merritt forward Bradley Coca scored into an empty net with just over a minute left in regulation. But the scoring wasn’t done, as a determined effort by Spencer McLean set up Smoke Eater defenceman Ring for his second tally of the season with 54 seconds remaining.
The win is Merritt’s fifth in six games and puts the Cents at 14-14-2-1 and in sixth place in the Interior Division, while the Smokies, at 20-11-2-0, have just one win in seven and sit in fourth in the Interior. For Ring, the only answer to Trail’s midseason troubles is more hard work.
“I think you just get back to work at practice and then move on,” said Ring. “You can’t really dwell on the losses, you just have to look forward to the next game and try to get a win there.”
And the key to getting the team back on track is staying positive and supporting his teammates.
“I just try to stay positive in the room, and just keep everyone together,” said the Vancouver native. “It’s definitely a tough time for everyone, but I just try to stay positive, and hopefully it trickles down to the younger guys.”
Trail outshot Merritt 33-31 and were 0-for-3 on the power play, while the Cents were 1-for-6.
Despite the welcome return of Murphy, Blaine Caton and Braeden Tuck to the Smokies line up, offensively, the Smoke Eaters are still missing their top two snipers in Ross Armour, who is at the World Jr. A Challenge (WJAC), and Kale Howarth, who returned to his home in Red Deer for personal reasons. One of Trail’s top defenceman, Seth Barton, is also at the WJAC, but all are expected back after Christmas.
Their absence combined with injuries to top-six forwards has left an indelible hole in a line up that averaged almost 4.5 goals per game before Nov.22, but has averaged just 2.7 in the last eight matches. With the team on the mend and the return of their top players, the Smoke Eaters look to turn the tide come the new year.
“I think everyone is doing pretty good, we’re pretty healthy, and have a full line up so there’s not really any more excuses, we just have to be ready to go this weekend,” added Ring.
The Smokies play the Nanaimo Clippers at home Friday at 7 p.m. and the Vipers in Vernon on Saturday.
Smoke Signals: Trail forward Ross Armour scored Canada West’s only goal in a 2-1 loss to the U.S. on Tuesday night, as Canada West finished the round-robin at 0-2. The Rossland native pitched in on two of the three Team Canada West goals, earning an assist in Canada West’s 5-2 loss to the Czech Rep. to open the series.
Team Canada West played Team Canada East (1-1) in the quarter final match on Wednesday, but the score was unavailable at press time. The U.S. played Switzerland in the other quarter final match up with the winners going on to face the top seeds Russia and the Czech Rep.