Over 1,400 fans packed the Cominco Arena Saturday night to watch the Trail Smoke Eaters dominate the Penticton Vees in a dramatic 6-3 comeback victory over the Interior Division leading team.
“It was just electric in the rink,” said Smoke Eater forward Ryan Moon. “We had a lot of energy the whole game tonight, and I think there’s always belief in this room that the type of group we have, we’re always in it, and it gave us an opportunity for guys to step up.”
Moon scored the winning goal with just under four minutes to play in regulation to lift the Smokies to their third win in a row and second consecutive over the Penticton Vees. Trail has earned a point in each of its five matches against Penticton this season with three wins in regulation and two overtime losses, while the slumping Vees have managed just one point in its past four games.
“There’s something about our group this year, when we play against the better teams we kind of rise to the occasion,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “We talk about having that same level of intensity against no matter who we’re playing. But for whatever reason against Penticton, the guys really have that extra motivation to prove we belong in the league just as much as they do.”
Penticton jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 13:05 of the first period on a goal from Griffin Mendel, and made it 2-0 85 seconds into the second on a bank shot from behind the net by Taylor Ward. But Trail rallied and a relentless Trail forecheck pinned the Vees in their own zone for much of the middle frame. Vees goalie Mat Robson kept the Smokies off the board until the final 98 seconds, when Spencer McLean sprung Blaine Caton on a partial breakaway, and the Vernon native held off the Vees defender and backhanded his 12th of the season top corner to cut the lead to one, as Trail outshot Penticton 20-7 in the period.
“We were playing hard, and I thought we were going to wear them down as time went by,” said Keith. “You could see they were getting frustrated and the guys just kept grinding, kept grinding, and the goal at the end of the second was so big, it gave us a lift in the second intermission.”
Trail came out hard in the third, and Luke Santerno tied it when he took a pass down low from Kale Howarthwalked out front and beat Robson glove side less than five minutes in. But 20 seconds later, Vees forward Nic Jones replied, breaking in all alone and outwaiting Smokies goalie Linden Marshall to regain the lead 3-2.
After Vees defender Jonny Tychonick was sent off for hooking, Trail came right back on the power play and Jeremy Lucchini’s point shot found a path through traffic for his first of the season to tie the game 3-3.
Trail continued to press, while Penticton struggled to mount a concerted attack, and when they did, Marshall answered. With less than five minutes remaining in regulation, it looked like another overtime was pending, but Moon intercepted a pass, made a move, and wired a high shot that went off Robson’s arm and trickled over the goal line for Trail’s first lead of the match.
“The puck came out to me and I probably should have shot it right away,” said Moon. “But I just held on to it and put it up top, and I think it just went overtop his shoulder and trickled in. It’s definitely a good feeling, but just a great win by the team tonight.”
The six-foot-three, 190-pound forward wreaked havoc in front of the Vees net all night, and along with linemates Korbyn Chabot and Braeden Tuck, the trio was key in keeping the Vees’ top lines in check.
“Ryan’s come a long way this year,” said Keith. “He’s a kid whose ceiling is so high, he’s a big kid and he’s just figuring out how good he can be, how well he can protect the puck and score those big time goals. He’s really come on of late and he’s your typical Smoke Eater kid, he works hard every night, he has a big body and has a real presence down low … Moving forward he’s going to be a kid that people in Trail are going to want to watch for a long time.”
The Smoke Eaters kept the pedal down, and Josh Laframboise added an insurance marker with 2:13 to play, and Howarth scored his 27th goal 67 seconds later for the 6-3 final.
Trail outshot Penticton 49-29, went 2-for-5 on the power play, and was perfect on the penalty kill on five Vees’ opportunities. Caton was named the game’s first star, Penticton’s Matt Goslewski the second star, and Marshall the third star, while Montrose product, McLean, earned Fortis Energy Player of the Game.
Trail again iced four affiliate players with the Beaver Valley Nitehawks Tyler Ghirardosi, Brad Ross, and Ethan Jang, and Creston Valley Thunder Cats Justen James wearing the orange and black for injured Smokies Tyson Slater, Ross Armour, and Mitch Stapley, and suspended player Connor Brown-Maloski.
The contribution of the young APs was impressive, and gave the Nitehawks 16-year-old forward Ross, in just his second game as AP, a taste of things to come.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Ross. “It’s a little bit different than playing at B.V. but I thought I did well, played physical, played my game, stuck to it, and just did my job.”
The all-AP line of Ross, Ghirardosi, and James scored the winning goal against Merritt on Tuesday, and was again used in all situations on Saturday night. The line was on the ice in the dying minutes against Penticton with James and Ghirardosi setting up Laframboise’s insurance marker with two minutes to play.
“I thought we worked well together,” said Ross. “(We) performed the way we had too, did our jobs, and being able to help out just feels good.”
Trail has 10 games remaining in the regular season and is coming off a successful January with six wins and four losses. The recent three-game win streak came at the right time as both West Kelowna and Merritt lost ground this weekend and now lie four points back of the Smokies for third place in the Interior Division.
Trail’s next game goes on Friday when the Coquitlam Express visit the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m.