The Trail Smoke Eaters split their opening exhibition series against the West Kelowna Warriors in contrasting fashion, bouncing back from a 3-2 overtime loss in a defensive battle Friday, to skate to a 9-7 victory on Saturday.
“It was a good measuring stick, I mean it was pretty much their team against our team the second game,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “I’m obviously excited about how they played in the first period and the offence that they created, but not overly thrilled with how we finished off the game having a 9-2 lead.”
Kale Howarth’s first goal as a Smoke Eater would hold up as the winner, giving the Smokies an 8-2 lead on the Warriors in the second period, en route to the 9-7 win.
Howarth redirected a pretty pass from Kienan Scott over the blocker of Warriors goalie Daniel Mannella on a power play mid-way through the second-period. The Red Deer product is a big, skilled forward and was a stand out at the Smoke Eater camp.
“He’s definitely taken advantage of the opportunity, and that’s a pleasant surprise,” said Deschenes.
Trail dominated in the early going, scoring three times in the first three minutes and seven seconds to take a surprising 3-0 lead.
Cooper Leitch opened the scoring, finishing a nice pass from behind the net from Connor Brown-Maloski and he would return the favour less than a minute later on a perfect cross-crease pass to CBM. Evan McEachern’s point shot then beat the Warriors goalie high blocker side on a delayed penalty, before the Warriors Jonathon Desbiens, a Bentley University commit, would get one back, sniping a shot top corner on Smokie goalie Bailey Macburnie on a power play to make it 3-1.
The Smokies would net three more before the period was out and would lead 6-2 heading to the second.
Tempers flared in the middle frame as Trail continued to press, and West Kelowna took a number of undisciplined penalties as the two referees sent a steady procession of players to the sin bin.
Dexter McLeod would keep the ball rolling, as he drifted a screened shot from the point into the top corner, a minute before Howarth’s winner. Harlan Orr would finish the Trail scoring binge on a great individual effort, driving to the front of the net and banging in his own rebound under Manella to make it 9-2.
Yet, West Kelowna would not go quietly, scoring three goals in the final two minutes of the second period to make it 9-5, and would add two more goals with time winding down in the final frame to make it close.
“We talked about it, and that can’t be our MO to let teams back into games, as we saw last year, one goal made the difference often, and if you let up teams are good enough to come back, especially in our division.”
Along with the play of Howarth, Deschenes was impressed with Rossland’s Ross Armour and London, Ont. native Leitch who also displayed his tough side, dropping the gloves with a big Warrior defenceman early in the second period.
“Cooper has been a force here in camp. The goaltender had a tough go, but I think Bailey has shown up in good chunks and that he’s going to be capable of playing well in this league. It’s still early, but the pleasant surprise is Kale, and Cooper Leitch is definitely our most improved player over the off season, and I think our goaltending is going to be a lot more consistent.”
On Friday in West Kelowna, three Warrior power play goals would be the difference in a 3-2 overtime loss.
But West Kelowna’s Reed Gunville would tie it four minutes into the second, and, after a scoreless third period, a point shot by Nick Rutigliano in overtime would find its way through traffic and beat Trail goalie Linden Marshall for the victory.
The penalty kill was a problem on both nights for the Smoke Eaters, but Deschenes isn’t about to panic, with only a limited time preparing for the two games.
“We haven’t practiced special teams yet so (I’m not worried),” said Deschenes. “When forwards that have not been taught a system go out against guys that have been playing a power play together for two years, you’re going to expect some breakdowns.”
While early, the opening games bode well for a Trail team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.