You just gotta believe.
The Trail Smoke Eaters evened up the Interior Division semifinal series at two games apiece on Wednesday night at the Cominco Arena with a thrilling 6-3 win over the number-1 seed Penticton Vees.
“We knew we had to take care of home ice,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “I don’t think the kids really believed in themselves until yesterday’s win. And you can see tonight it could have gone either way, but the bend-but-don’t-break theory is how we played tonight.”
Smoke Eater defenceman Seth Barton single-handedly sent 2,500 fans to their feet after netting the winning goal with 5:55 remaining in the third period. Barton’s shot from the blue line sailed through a screen and past Vees goalie Adam Scheel for a 4-3 Trail lead.
“I got the puck and I was just looking for a lane, it opened up and I got it on net,” said Barton. “I knew there were bodies going (to the net), and to be honest I had no idea I scored, but I’m just happy to get the win.”
The game started on a tentative note with neither team generating a lot of offence in the early going; until Vees captain and leading scorer Owen Sillinger was sent off for interference, but also given a game misconduct for an altercation by the Vees bench. But it was Penticton that scored first shorthanded when Wyatt Sloboshan jumped on a defensive error and broke in all alone on Adam Marcoux, roofing it for a 1-0 lead with 2:55 to go in the first.
Trail replied 46 seconds later when Troy Ring worked the puck to Andre Ghantous in the high slot, and the Glendale, Calif. native wired it blocker side on Scheel to tie it.
The intensity picked up and a penalty to Barton with two minutes to play gave the Vees their second power play of the period. Yet, an inspiring forecheck by Smokies assistant captain Ross Armour kept the Vees hemmed in their end in the final minute to kill the penalty. The Rossland native’s effort sent the fans into a frenzy as the period and the penalty came to a close.
The Vees came out determined in the second, but failed to capitalize, and a gutsy forecheck by Spencer McLean put Trail up 2-1. The Montrose native picked the pocket of the Vees defenceman, circled behind the net and sent the puck in front, which, after a brief scramble, was lifted into the back of the net by Carter Jones at 13:16 of the second period.
Armour was called for hooking with five minutes left in the middle frame and Penticton pressed once more, however, goalie Adam Marcoux loomed large. The Calgary native stymied the Vees on a 2-on-1, then made the save of the night when Taylor Ward walked in on a breakaway but Marcoux snatched the tying goal out of the air with a windmill glove save to preserve the lead.
Trail went back on the power play when Dakota Boutin was sent off for high sticking with 1:32 remaining in the period. Smoke Eaters d-man Connor Welsh delivered a perfect pass to Kale Howarth at the top of the circle and the Red Deer native fired a one-timer past Scheel for a 3-1 Trail lead with 47 seconds left on the clock.
The Vees held a 21-15 shot advantage through two periods, but trailed 3-1 heading into the third.
However, the Vees weren’t done quite yet. Jonny Tychonick’s blast from the point flew into a gaping cage after Marcoux was sent sprawling by a Vees player who was deemed pushed into the Trail goalie by the Smokies defender. Lukas Sillinger then redirected a Tychonick shot at 13:49 to tie the game just 22 seconds later and erase the two-goal lead.
“We just always have to have our foot on the gas pedal,” said Barton. “They got a couple lucky ones, but we kept pressuring, and got a character win there.”
Barton put the Smokies up 4-3 with six minutes to play, but left ample time for the Vees to tie it, just as they did the previous night with 19 seconds remaining.
Penticton pushed for the equalizer, but it was all for nought as Smoke Eaters forward Tyler Ghirardosi scored what might stand as the highlight of highlight-reel goals of the 2018 BCHL playoffs.
Ghantous sent a cross-ice pass to a breaking Ghirardosi, who chipped the puck past Tychonick, then undressed Vees defenceman James Miller and snapped a water-bottle-popping shot over Scheel’s blocker for a 5-3 Smoke Eaters lead with just 2:44 left in regulation.
“That’s the only time as a coach, I’ve ever freaked out on the bench,” said Keith. “That’s the nicest goal I’ve ever seen, in junior hockey and pro … It’s a big time goal. He did the same thing against West K, and he’s a big time player.”
Penticton pulled Scheel in the final two minutes but Armour forced a turnover at the Penticton blue line and delivered the dagger with 38 seconds left in regulation for the 6-3 victory.
“It’s unbelievable when you’re down 2-0 and you come back home you know it’s going to be special,” said Barton. “Obviously you saw it tonight, when we got up on that last goal there the crowd went nuts, and it’s going to be huge going back to Penticton.”
Trail’s special teams went 2-for-4 on the power play, while shutting out Penticton on four chances. The Vees outshot Trail 31-25.
First star honours went to the Smokies defenceman Seth Barton, while Marcoux earned second star, and Tychonick the third star.
The Vees lineup is laden with the league’s elite talent, with 18 players committed to NCAA colleges on their roster, compared to five for Trail. But character, heart, and the desire to win tipped the scale in Trail’s favour in Games 3 and 4, and the Smoke Eaters now have to pack up their hard hats and lunch boxes and translate those intangibles to one win on the road.
“We literally had to win both games to be in the series, but still need to find a way to bring that energy on the road,” said Keith. “But we also felt if we could win these two games, it would give us some momentum – some belief – that we can play with these guys if we play our game, and hopefully they’re second-guessing themselves right now.”
Game 5 goes in Penticton tonight and returns to Trail for Game 6 on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.
Go online at trailtimes.ca for all the Smoke Eater updates.