The Trail Smoke Eaters are off to the Interior Division final after knocking off the number-1 seed Penticton Vees in Game 7 of the BCHL’s Interior semifinal.
The Smokies silenced a crowd of over 4,300 Vees fans at the South Okanagan Events Centre on Monday with a 4-2 victory over the Vees. The fourth-seeded Smoke Eaters beat the Vees in their home-barn twice in a row to win the best-of-seven series and advance to the Interior Division final for the third time in Smoke Eaters history.
“It was an absolute war,” said Smoke Eater head coach and GM Cam Keith. “The series could have gone either way. You have to give Penticton credit, they rebounded so many times against us, and never made it easy. It was such a great series.”
With Trail leading 2-0, Smokies forward Blaine Caton was sent off for hooking, and the Vees were poised to get one back, until Trail’s Ross Armour scored what proved to be the game winner. A determined forecheck forced the defenceman to cough up the puck in the Penticton end, and Armour wired it under the blocker of Vees goalie Adam Scheel for a 3-0 lead.
“When you get in these moments you can’t make the mistakes that we did,” Vees head coach Fred Harbinson told the Penticton Western News. “We had an unfortunate bounce that gave them their first goal, then after that we take a too many men on the ice penalty … then a short-handed goal put us in a big hole. I thought our guys fought hard and tried to get back in the game.”
The Smoke Eaters fell behind in the division semifinal series 2-0 before storming back and winning three straight games, only to fall in Game 6 in a disappointing 6-1 loss at the Cominco Arena on Saturday. The loss could have deflated the Smoke Eaters, but instead they rallied.
“You just have to turn the page,” said Keith. “In playoffs, because it’s such a long series, you can’t ride the emotional wave. So we didn’t even show video of the game because I felt it would be counter-productive, we focused on ourselves and just tried to keep the boys confidence up … We came into Penticton feeling that we could win it rather than we’ll have to get lucky to win it.”
A confident Vees team took to the ice at the South Okanagan Event Centre where they lost just six games at home this season. However, Trail came out swinging from the opening whistle, and Andre Ghantous made it 1-0 when a Blaine Caton shot glanced off the defenceman and right to Ghantous in the slot who fired it into the open net midway through the first period.
A too-many-men penalty to Penticton put Trail on the power play with 3:15 left in the period. Forty-seven seconds later Armour found Braeden Tuck down low and his backhander went through a crowd and eluded Scheel for a 2-0 Smoke Eater lead.
Trail outshot the Vees 14-11 in the first period and kept it going into the second with Armour’s shorthanded game winner. The Vees got on the board midway through the period, when Chris Klack rushed down the ice and into the Smokies zone, cutting to the middle before sending a pass to Wyatt Sloboshan on the Smokies doorstep to cut the lead to 3-1.
Penticton pressed and Trail bent but refused to break as Smoke Eater goalie Adam Marcoux came up big on a number of occasions, and Trail held on to a two-goal lead heading into the third.
“Couzy (Marcoux) was the MVP tonight by far,” said Keith. “He controlled rebounds and made those big saves look easy and effortless. When you have a goalie that does that, it keeps our team calmer, where other goalies might be scrambling more and you feel that sense of panic, he kept things calm and froze a lot of pucks for us, slowed the game down at times, and just had that veteran presence. He was huge.”
While Penticton scrambled to cut the lead to one, Tuck broke in with Armour on a 2-on-1 and backhanded a pass to the Rossland native who lifted it over Scheel for his second goal of the game 70 seconds into the third.
Trail played disciplined, rock-solid defensive hockey in the final stanza, allowing the Vees to fire away from the perimeter then countering with a quick transition that generated multiple odd-man rushes that included two cross bars, a post, and a goal-line clearing save by Vees defenceman Jordan Henderson.
Penticton desperately attacked the Trail net, only to be foiled by a blocked shot or save by Marcoux. Finally, with just over eight minutes to play, Kenny Johnson rocked a Trail forward at the Smoke Eater blue line, then jumped up in the play and shovelled in a cross-crease pass from Luke Reid to make it a 4-2 game.
The Vees Owen Sillinger hit the post on a close in opportunity with three minutes remaining, and while Penticton owned the puck possession stats in the third, Trail’s defence frustrated the Vees forwards time and again.
The Vees outshot the Smoke Eaters 16-6 in the third period, and 39-29 in the match, but Trail went 1-for-2 on the power play and 4-2 where it mattered most – while Penticton was 0-for-1.
“I feel terrible for our guys, and our fan base,” said Harbinson. “If I could do the game 100 times over, I’d want to win it 100 times. But now that it’s over, we’ve lost, and the truth of the matter is, it’s great for the league. They’re a great story, from ownership, their coaching staff, their players and fan base – they have to be really proud of what they’ve done there, it’s a great story.”
Armour received the game’s first star, the Vees Kenny Johnson second star, and Marcoux the third star.
Trail will take on the Wenatchee Wild in the Interior Division final starting Friday in Wenatchee. The Wild won the season series against Trail 6-4, winning all three at home, while Trail won 2-of-3 at the Cominco Arena.
“We can’t get into a run-and-gun style of game, we have to make it a slower, grind style, play-below-the-dots kind of hockey and that’s where we shine,” said Keith. “Wenatchee has a lot of fire power and we have to respect that. So we’re going to go back to the drawing board, and evaluate their team again. We lost the series against them this year, so we have to find a way to be better against them.”
The Smoke Eaters will play Friday and Saturday at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, before returning to Trail for Tuesday and Wednesday match ups.