The Trail Smoke Eaters have almost seized control of their own destiny, giving themselves a chance to make the post-season, albeit in dramatic fashion.
Solid defensive play and exceptional goaltending from Adam Todd, in addition to a timely goal by Scott Davidson, carried the Trail Smoke Eaters to a dramatic 2-1 victory over Merritt Centennials Tuesday night at the Cominco Arena, and moved the team into a tie for the fourth and final playoff spot with the Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
“We played a pretty good hockey game tonight,” said Trail coach and GM Bill Birks. “We didn’t start very good, but I thought after the time out, the Berkholtz, Wheeldon, McDougall line again gets a spark with a couple big hits and momentum changes a little bit.”
The win was Trail’s third in its last four games, while Salmon Arm has now lost five in a row to even the teams at 48 points with the Backs having two games in hand.
Coming off a thrilling 5-4 overtime win on Friday where offence was key, the Smokies showed they can also play a tight defensive game against the second-best defensive team in the league in Merritt.
The Cents have allowed just 125 goals in 49 games, a 2.50 team GAA, with half their defensive core and starting goalie committed to NCAA universities, including Dane Birks, son of the Smokies head coach.
Trail’s winning goal came 3:42 into the third period, when Davidson corralled a loose puck at the top of the circle, wheeled and fanned on the shot, but quickly reloaded and sent a wrist shot through a crowd and over the glove of Merritt goalie Russell Sanderson to give the Smokies a 2-0 lead.
“It was just a weird hop off the boards, and it came on my stick and I just turned around and fired it, hit a bunch of guys in front, I think, and went in,” said Davidson.
Despite a slow start to the first period a few choice words from coach Birks at the 10-minute time out got the team going.
Fruitvale native Mitch Foyle broke the goose egg at 15:33 of the period, taking a pass from Marley Keca and streaking in on a 2-on-1 with Connor Collett. The 16-year-old used Collett as a decoy, faked a pass then blew a shot over the blocker of Sanderson to put Trail up 1-0.
Trail dominated the second period firing 14 shots at the Merritt goal including a pair of breakaways by Garrett McMullen and Jesse Knowler, and a point-blank opportunity for Davidson. But Sanderson forced McMullen to shoot wide and robbed Knowler with a right pad save on a deke to his backhand, before taking a Davidson shot off the mask.
“We score on a couple of those breakaways it’s a different game, but these guys battled hard, and they’re hungry,” said Birks.
The Smokies defensive corps of Marley Keca, Valik Chichkin, Bennett Hambrook, Braeden Pears and Jones, and Shane Poulsen had an exceptional game and kept a very adept offensive team at bay most of the night, limiting quality scoring chances and odd-man rushes, blocking shots, taking the body, and allowing Todd to see perimeter opportunities.
“As a group of five we were good,” said Birks. “Our D-men, the first 10 minutes no one was good, we were soft and turned it over, but (after that) as a group of five in our end we were really good tonight.”
When the Cents did find an opening Todd would calmly shut the door, showing poise, great positioning and rebound control in stopping 27 of 28 shots on the night.
“I give a lot of credit to my goalie coach, Alex Evin, we’ve been working pretty hard together and I can thank him for that,” said Todd. “I just feel really confident and really, really calm in there.”
Todd thwarted the Cents’ attack all night, but also credited the fine play of his team mates.
“I thought the team took it to Merritt all night,” said Todd. “We didn’t give up many scoring opportunities. We came out a little flat in the first period, but at the 10-minute mark we turned it around.”
At the start of the third, Sanderson made another highlight-reel save off an Austin Adduono breakaway giving Merritt a lift as they started pressuring the Smokies end.
The attack would pay off, as Silvan Harper broke Todd’s shutout bid with six minutes left in regulation. Harper walked out of the corner, wristing a shot that squeezed through Todd’s arm and pad to cut the lead to one.
But the six-foot-four goalie stood tall the rest of the way, somehow keeping the puck out of the net during a mad scramble on a Cent’s powerplay midway through the third, and getting help from the post when Richard Sabourin ripped a shot off the iron in the dying minutes.
“It’s two points at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how greasy or how ugly it is, two points is two points, and right now we need all the points we can get,” said Todd.
The Courtenay native picked up his ninth win of the season for the Smokies, was named the game’s first star, and Fortis Energy Player of the Game, while Sanderson was the game’s second star, and Foyle nabbed third star honours.
The Smokies now prepare for its first of four games against Penticton Vees to close out the season, and, with the SilverBacks having two games in hand, will need at least a couple Salmon Arm losses in order to make the post season.
“These guys are looking forward to it,” said Birks. “We have to get three or four points out of them and then play them (Penticton) in the playoffs.”
The puck drops against the Vees on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.