Trail Smoke Eater forward Braeden Tuck scored the winner and a pair of goals from Kale Howarth lifted the Smoke Eaters to a 5-4 victory over the Merritt Centennials on Saturday night at the Cominco Arena.
The Smokies battled back from a Centennials 3-2 first period lead to earn their 26th win, equalling their win total from all of last season, and keep pace with Penticton and Wenatchee in the Interior Division race.
“It’s something you want to do personally as a head coach,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “You want to try to improve from one year to the next … but we knew we were going to be a pretty talented group this year so 26 wins wouldn’t have been satisfactory … and we know we’re going to need a lot more if we’re going to win the division or at least get top three.”
Tuck’s goal with 11:48 to play in the third period proved to be the winner. The Calgary native took a pass from Tyler Ghirardosi down low and beat Cents goalie Jacob Berger between the pads for a 5-3 Smokies lead.
The win keeps the Smokies tied with Wenatchee for third place in the division, a point behind the Vees, who Trail tied 2-2 on Friday, and five points behind league-leading Vernon Vipers with 61 points. The Smoke Eaters have managed at least a point in every game since Christmas with six wins, a tie, and an overtime loss.
“The mood has definitely been up in our locker room,” said Smoke Eater defenceman Ethan Martini. “We have all the guys back and we’re able to get some pretty big points especially in our division, so the boys are thriving right now.”
The Centennials were coming off a huge 5-0 shut-out victory over the Vipers on Friday and struck early against the Smoke Eaters. Just three minutes into the first, the Cents’ Frazer Dodd won the face off in the Smoke Eater zone, pushing the puck to winger Mathew Kopperud, who jumped on it and fired high on Trail goalie Tanner Marshall for a 1-0 Merritt lead.
Carter Jones tied it 92 seconds later when he took a pass in the slot from Dane Dubois and wristed it by Berger. However, Kopperud put the Cents up 2-1 when he burst into the Smokies zone, walked around the defenceman and beat Marshall glove side at 13:32.
Howarth scored his first of the night to tie it at two, banging in a rebound on a Levi Glasman shot with just under four minutes remaining. But Merritt’s Zach Court restored the lead with 1:07 to play in the opening period breaking in a 2-on-1 and keeping for his eighth of the season.
It was Marshall’s first action in the Trail net since a lower body injury sidelined him last month, so a little rust combined with a good Centennials start may have played a part in the three-goal first period. Trail came out with Adam Marcoux between the pipes in the second period and dominated the Centennials.
“It wasn’t Tanner Marshall’s fault,” said Keith. “We made the goalie change after the first to try to spark something … We had a reality check after the first period against Merritt, and bringing Adam back into the net was a good spark, and the guys went to work and obviously we had the results.”
Howarth netted his 22nd of the season on the power play, going five-hole on Berger to tie it at three midway through the middle frame, with the assist to Ross Armour.
Trail outshot Merritt 13-6 in the period but the game remained deadlocked until the third. Troy Ring scored a short-handed goal at 7:31 to give Trail its first lead of the game, and just over a minute later Tuck made it 5-3.
Merritt’s Nicholas Wicks finally beat Marcoux with 1:33 left on the clock, scoring a power-play goal for the 5-4 final.
Trail outshot Merritt 31-27 and both teams went 1-for-3 on the power play. Trail’s Howarth was the game’s first star, Armour (3A) second star, and Jones (1G,1A) third star.
On Friday, overtime solved nothing as the Smoke Eaters skated to a 2-2 tie with the Penticton Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Smokies goalie Adam Marcoux was stellar again in net stopping 41 shots and earning first-star honours in the tight match. Blaine Caton gave Trail a 1-0 lead with a power play goal at 13:04 of the first, and the score remained that way until Penticton’s Dakota Boutin tied it seven minutes into the third.
Carter Jones restored the Trail lead at 11:02 with a nice individual effort, weaving his way through a few Vees players before firing a wrist shot past the blocker of Vees goalie Adam Scheel with nine minutes remaining in the game.
But Michael Campoli, playing in just his fourth game since joining the Vees from Boston College, tied it when his floater from the blue line went through traffic and eluded Marcoux with 4:38 to play.
The Vees outshot Trail 43-21 overall. The Smoke Eaters were 2-for-3 on the power play and a perfect 0-for-4 on the penalty kill.
Trail’s next game goes on Friday when they host the West Kelowna Warriors at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena, before returning to Penticton on Saturday.