Trail Smoke Eaters GM and head coach Jeff Tambellini knew the first round series against the Prince George Spruce Kings wasn’t going to be easy.
The Smoke Eaters rolled over the Spruce Kings in their two meetings this season, winning by scores of 9-2 and 3-0, but have been pushed to the limit in their first two games of the Interior Division quarter-final.
“They are one of the most defensive teams in the league so we expected no space, a trap in both games,” said Tambellini. “It’s never easy playing those games, it’s like playing Norway and Switzerland, it’s everything we expected, their goaltending is playing well and ours is too, and we’re up 2-0.”
Game 2 on Saturday at the Cominco Arena needed an extra frame before the Smoke Eaters earned their second straight 2-1 victory over Prince George.
After failing to score on a power play early in the overtime period, Smoke Eaters forward Owen Ozar tallied the game winning goal 6:34 into the first OT. Kent Johnson worked the puck out of the corner, turned and fired but his shot was blocked. Ozar swooped in, jumped on the loose puck, made a spectacular move, faking and freezing the Kings goalie and finishing with a backhand over a sprawling Jett Alexander for the game winner.
“Me, Phil and Kent, we had our chances all night,” said Ozar. “I seen Kent kind of sling it to the net, and it was blocked and I was just coming off the bench and it was lying in the slot, just took it to the backhand so it worked out good.”
For Tambellini, it was only a matter of time before the Smokies top line would capitalize.
“You need your best guys to step up in a game like that, those guys have been great all year, and were fantastic tonight.”
On Friday night, the Smoke Eaters scored twice in the final five minutes on goals from Matt Osadick and Philippe Lapointe for the 2-1 win.
The Spruce Kings carried a 1-0 lead into the third, and although Trail had numerous chances, a combination of tight defensive play and stellar goaltending kept the Smokies off the board for more than 55 minutes.
“P.G. plays a frustrating style, they’re really defensive and they know how to shut down games so you know we just have to stick with it,” said Ozar. “We stuck with it tonight just like last night and it paid off for us.”
The Smokies power play struggled going 0-for-6 Friday, but managed to score one on Saturday, while giving up a goal as well.
“I liked our looks, we had some great chances and got momentum out of it and tonight did a really good job on it,” said Tambellini. “Special teams is more about momentum in the playoffs, and at this point in the year we’re more worried about wins.”
In Game 2, the Smoke Eaters opened the scoring on the power play with 5:16 left in the second period. Ozar setup Chase Dafoe on the doorstep, but the puck deflected to Johnson at the right circle who fired it in for a 1-0 lead.
Both teams traded chances in the late going with Terness making a blocker save off a Nick Poisson breakaway and Alexander responding with a couple superlative steals off of Ozar on the doorstep and a desperation goal-line glove save off Johnson with 2:22 left in the middle frame.
Trail kept the Spruce Kings at bay for most of the third but a penalty with 5:44 to play gave the Spruce Kings the opportunity they were looking for. After a couple close calls, a floater from the point made its way through traffic and was stopped by Terness, but Finlay Williams banged in the rebound for a power-play goal to tie it and force the OT.
Prince George outshot Trail 25-23 with each team going 1-for-3 on the power play.
Ozar was the game’s first star, goalie Logan Terness second star, and P.G.’s goalie Alexander the third star, with Johnson earning the Energy Player of the Game.
Trail will look to end the series in Prince George, but will face a tough Spruce Kings team playing on a smaller rink at the Mix in Games 3, 4 and 5.
“We just have to keep it simple and play our game,” added Ozar. “P.G. is going to play good in their own barn like they always do so we just have to go there and play our best, and hopefully it works out for us.”
Game 3 went on Monday night in Prince George but the score was unavailable at press time.
Games 4 and 5 go on Tuesday and Thursday in P.G. with the puck drop at 7 p.m. and return to the Cominco Arena for Games 6 and 7 on Saturday and Sunday, if necessary.
In other Interior action, Penticton leads West Kelowna three games to none, while Salmon Arm has a 2-0 lead over Victoria, and Wenatchee and Vernon were tied 1-1 at press time Monday.