With just nine games to play and five points out of a playoff spot, the Trail Smoke Eaters showed their hometown fans that the season was far from over, as they skated to a gutsy 5-3 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks on Tuesday at the Cominco Arena.
The Smokies were without leading scorer Nick Halloran, who was out with an upper body injury, but the team played disciplined and gritty hockey, particularly in the late going when the Gorillas pushed, slashed, and boarded in an effort to tie it.
Max Newton scored the winning marker on a power play with 1:25 left in the second period to give the Smokies a 4-2 lead and their 20th win of the season. Evan MacEachern worked the puck down low to Kienan Scott, who drew the defenceman then made a slick backhand pass to Newton in front. The Vancouver native jammed the puck between the pads of Salmon Arm goalie Brandon Kegler for his 11th goal and 32nd point of the season.
“That’s a big character win,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “We’ve had a rough January. We’re down five points, and it says a lot that the guys battled through adversity, the injuries, and bumps and bruises for this game. Salmon Arm is a physical team and they play hard. At the end of the day we got goaltending, we got special teams, and we found a way to win at the end.”
The game started out fast and physical with each team dishing out hits and generating scoring chances. Trail got on the board first when Jake Kauppila snuck behind the defence and tipped in a shot from Harlan Orr at the top of the circle.
But two quick goals from Salmon Arm’s Chase Zieky and Ross Heidt put the Backs up 2-1 with less than three minutes to play. After Silverbacks Joshua Laframboise was sent off for slashing, Kale Howarth replied for Trail, tapping in a backhand pass from Ross Armour at the side of the net to tie it with 20 seconds to play in the period.
The frenzied pace continued into the second, but Salmon Arm was the first to bend, when Smokie forward Nolan Redler head-manned a pass to Newton skating down the left-wing boards. The 18-year-old Trail forward didn’t even blink as he one-timed a perfect pass across the blue line to a streaking Kyle Star who sent a laser from the faceoff circle into the top corner of the Salmon Arm net to give the Smokies a 3-2 lead at the 8:48 mark of the period.
“I got an unbelievable pass from Max there, and I saw the guy on my back, so I just tried to fight him off and fire it top shelf, and it went in for me,” said Star, the Fortis Energy Player of the Game.
Since returning from ankle injury, the Langley native has been a force of late netting his fifth point in three games, while making a commitment to play hockey for Trinity Western University next season.
“He was the captain of Surrey when we traded for him, so there’s a lot of character there and a lot of good energy,” said Deschenes.
Following Newton’s tally, Trail’s Connor Brown-Maloski was sent off for slashing at 19:23, and with time winding down, Salmon Arm’s Kody Shwarz worked the puck to Zieky at the point who fired a low shot past Smoke Eater goalie Bailey MacBurnie with just four seconds left on the clock to make it 4-3 heading into the third.
Salmon Arm came out flying in the final frame, but MacBurnie made several big saves, and had some help from a post and crossbar to keep the Smokies in front.
The physical game became chippy midway through the last stanza, when Silverbacks’ forward Colton Thibault planted Mitch Stapley into the boards with a hit from behind, and was given two minutes for boarding. On the same play, Kauppila and Ayrton Nikkel were sent off for roughing as the intensity ramped up.
Three minutes later, Heidt landed a brutal hit-from-behind on Jeremy Lucchini, who like Stapley, remained on the ice for minutes afterwards. A scrum ensued and Star was sent to the ice after taking a shot to the face but no call, while Heidt received two minutes for boarding.
“If you look at a busted nose and bleeding from the mouth, some injuries on hits that, in my opinion, just don’t belong in the game of hockey, you don’t really get much out of those,” said Deschenes. “But we have to battle through that. We’re really going to have to do some inventory here and see how many guys we have for Friday. It’s fine we got the two points, but it’s frustrating.”
The Smokies remained disciplined and did not retaliate. Their self-control paid off as Trail netted an insurance marker with 2:47 remaining, when Montrose native Spencer McLean sent Armour in on a 2-on-1 with Blaine Caton. Armour broke in on the left side then feathered a perfect pass over the stick of the diving defenceman onto the tape of Caton who beat Kegler for his first goal since joining the Smoke Eaters in December.
“Nick Halloran wasn’t in our line up tonight, our top scorer, and we were able find ways to win,” said Deschenes. “We’re a very balanced team and look at Spencer McLean, Ross Armour, and Blaine Caton, they had one of their best games of the year, and for teams to have success, you have to have guys top to bottom contribute.”
Salmon Arm pulled their goalie with 2:31 remaining, but the Trail defence held and MacBurnie almost scored a goal of his own when he gloved the puck then lifted a long shot down the ice that just slid by the open net. Salmon Arm outshot Trail 36-30 on the night, with Trail going 2-for-5 on the power play and the Silverbacks 1-for-5. Star took first star honours, MacBurnie second star, and Cooper Sande played a solid game on the back end and received third star on the night.
Newton, MacEachern, McLean and Armour all had two point nights for the Smoke Eaters.
Trail will now face the West Kelowna Warriors on Friday and Saturday at the Cominco Arena, as they look to reel in the Vernon Vipers for the final playoff spot in the Interior division.
“Our goal is to be within one point of Vernon, so between now and then we have to come up with two more points than them, so that we have ourselves an exciting final home game to end the season,” added Deschenes.
The puck drop goes at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.