The Trail Smoke Eaters are moving on to the second round of the BCHL playoffs.
The surprising number-7 seeded Smoke Eaters bounced the no. 2 seed Merritt Centennials from the playoffs with a 4-2 Game 5 win on Friday.
“One thing I’ve learned in my career is you never want to waste games,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “I took a tough lesson from that when I was playing in Vancouver … When you have to max out a series you don’t need to, or where you have a lead, just the wear-and-tear that takes on your group. So to have three guys playing with the flu, and guys out, and to be able to get through that Game 5 and not have to come back for Game 6, that was a gutsy effort and a big game for our group.”
The 4-1 series win gives the Smoke Eaters a week to recuperate from a flu bug that bit a number of players last week, and it will also see the return of Chase Stevenson to the line up after serving a two-game suspension for crashing the crease.
“We knew there weren’t a lot of people picking us even to win the series, let alone do it in five. But our guys were able to execute a plan, so I don’t think it surprised our group as much as it surprised everyone else. Our guys are a pretty determined group.”
Smokies forward Bryce Anderson scored the game-winner midway through the third period Friday to give Trail a 3-2 lead, and Braeden Tuck added an insurance marker into an empty net for the 4-2 victory.
The rookie Anderson made the most of his opportunity to get into the line up after Stevenson’s suspension. The Whitehorse product banged in a bouncing pass from Max Kryski from the right corner at 10:18 of the third to break a 2-2 tie and silence the Centennials faithful at the Nicola Valley Arena.
“We’ve taken a real ‘next-man-up’ situation,” said Tambellini. “We lost Stevenson for Game 4, so Ghirardosi slotted up, Kryski slotted up, and Anderson came in, and it really didn’t affect our group too much. Sometimes when you have teams that are so reliant on top guys, to only be the guys to generate scoring, it’s really difficult.”
Trail’s scoring-by-committee saw 12 Smokies’ players tally at least one goal in the series, with forward Tyler Ghirardosi leading point-getters with two goals and five assists, followed closely by Kent Johnson with four goals and six points.
Yet, the Smokies back end also played a key role in the series. After losing Game 1, 4-2, the Smoke Eaters strong defensive play and goaltending stymied a potent Centennials offence, and Trail rolled to four straight wins to clinch the series in five. Merritt was held to just eight goals in the final four games, with Trail goalie Donovan Buskey stopping 128 of 136 shots for a .942 save percentage.
“Our MVPs of that series are Donovan Buskey and Powell Connor,” said Tambellini. “If you want to win in the playoffs, you look at the winning teams at any level and they’re built from the back end out. You need great goaltending and the defence has to be able to limit opportunities.”
Trail opened the scoring in Game 5 when Mack Byers wired a shot past Cents goalie Austin Roden for a 1-0 lead at 9:47 of the first period. Owen Ozar made a slick move down low to beat Roden at 10:18 of the second frame and give the Smoke Eaters a 2-0 lead.
Early in the third, Trail was called for back-to-back penalties giving the Cents a two-man advantage. Michael Van Unen capitalized blasting a shot past the blocker of Buskey at 4:07, and just seconds after the second Trail penalty expired, the Cents Bradley Cocca tied it on a shot from the right circle.
Following Anderson’s game winner, the Smokies defence kept the Cents good chances to a minimum, and Buskey came up big when he had to. Trail captain Braeden Tuck ended the drama with an empty netter with 26 seconds to play in regulation for the 4-2 final.
Merritt outshot Trail 34-33 and went 1-for-6 on the power play, while Trail was 0-for-4.
Roden earned the Game’s first star, Buskey the second star, and Anderson third star.
Trail now awaits the winner of the Penticton-Cowichan Valley series and the West Kelowna-Wenatchee series to determine who they play in the Interior semi-final. But Tambellini says his preparation doesn’t change and expects a difficult series no matter who goes through.
“There’s differences to each of the teams, but it’s really controlling how our team plays, how we execute, and how we defend,” added Tambellini. “Each team we play against there are going to be top players that we’re going to have to shut down, when our group does the main things we want to do well, we’re going to have a good chance.”
Cowichan leads the series over the Vees 3-2, and played in Duncan on Monday night in Game 6, and West Kelowna faced Wenatchee in Game 7, but the results were unavailable at press time.