It was a grind, but the Trail Smoke Eaters gutted out a 3-2 victory over the Vernon Vipers on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena, and now get set to face the Wenatchee Wild at home tonight.
The Smoke Eaters are emerging from a difficult run, but the positives are starting to pile up as Trail has earned points in each of their last four games, including wins against Vernon and Surrey, an overtime loss to Penticton and a shootout loss to Coquitlam.
“We talk about it the whole way,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “And even though we’ve had a tough stretch, the last four games we’re 2-0-2, so that’s six points of the last eight we got back the right way. We knew that even though we weren’t getting the wins we had at the start of the year, we’re going in the right direction. Some guys have stepped up and it makes a big difference.”
Smoke Eaters rookie Kent Johnson scored the game-winning goal, spinning and firing a shot from the left face off circle and beating Vernon goalie Aidan Porter under the arm to break a 2-2 tie with 5:27 remaining in regulation.
“I came down on a rush, and had a good look there,” said Johnson. “The puck was bouncing around, and I just turned around and fired it. The goalie was a little shaky all night, and we just got traffic there and somehow it found a way in.”
The goal was Johnson’s 10th of the season and 20th point, and the 16-year-old Port Moody native has been a standout for the Smoke Eaters this season.
“I thought we played really well, and even though things weren’t going our way the whole night we found a way to lock it down defensively against a good team and found a way to get the win,” added Johnson. “We deserved some better outcomes lately for sure, but it felt good to get that one.”
More important, both teams avoided another overtime match. Trail has gone to overtime in three of the past four games, and seven times this season, winning just once. And while Vernon sports an even more dismal overtime record (0-8), the prospect of OT was not a winning proposition for either team.
“Losing the skills competition, both of us have had a tough time, but that’s part of the game,” said Tambellini. “Your shoot outs and 3-on-3s it matters because it’s points, but we’re worried about 60 minutes and we’re going to find a way to gut those out for sure.”
Trail played a strong defensive first period holding the Vipers to just five shots on net and going up 1-0 on a Carter Jones snipe from the high slot, as Vernon failed to make any serious threat in the Smokies end.
“It’s a Wednesday, they have a big travel day coming in here, so it’s one of those games you have to jump on them early,” said Tambellini. “They did that to us the last time we did a Wednesday game going to Vernon. It’s a long trip so we have to be ready to play, and it was the best first period we’ve had against them all year. Every time we’ve played them in Vernon our starts haven’t been great so we found a way to get ahead, and then gut one out late in the game.”
The Vipers drew even in the second period on a power play. A Jesse Lansdell shot squeezed through the pads of Smoke Eaters goalie Adam Marcoux, but was cleared on the goal line by Trail defenceman Kieran O’Hearn. However, the clearing attempt went to new acquisition Matt Kowalski, who fired it right back and past Marcoux for his sixth of the season. The 19-year-old Vernon product suited up for his first game with the Vipers since coming over in a trade from West Kelowna on Tuesday in exchange for defenceman Austin Chorney.
The game stayed tied at one through the middle frame despite a 20-13 edge in shots for the Smoke Eaters.
After an interference call on O’Hearn, Vernon took a 2-1 lead at 5:11 of the third. Alex Swetlikoff worked the puck to defenceman Jack Judson in the high slot and the Arizona State commit walked in and fired a shot past the glove of Marcoux for his fourth goal and 19th point of the season.
Trail went on the power play 15 seconds later, and replied when Hayden Rowan took a pass from Diarmad DiMurro at the top of the right circle, and with Tyler Ghirardosi wrecking havoc in front, wired a shot over the blocker of Porter to tie the game at 2-2 with 13:05 to play in regulation.
Vernon pulled their goalie in the final minute but Trail kept the Vipers to the perimeter, and held on for the 3-2 victory.
Trail outshot Vernon 30-26 and went 1-for-6 on the power play, while the Vipers were 2-for-4.
It’s Trail’s second win in three games over the Vipers this season, as the Smoke Eaters get set for a long run of division rivals in the upcoming weeks starting with the Wenatchee Wild and Merritt Centennials this weekend.
“There’s no weekends where it’s going to be an easy task,” added Tambellini. “That’s why this is the toughest division in Canada for Junior A hockey and we have to build our team to prepare for that every night.”
Johnson was the game’s first star, the Vipers’ Kowalski second star, and Rowan third star.
The win leaves Trail (9-10-4-2) and Vernon (8-8-6-2) tied for sixth place with 24 points each in the Interior Division, however the Vipers have a game in hand.
Trail faces 13-9-2-0 Wenatchee on Friday at the Cominco Arena with the puck drop at 7 p.m., before traveling to Merritt on Saturday for a division tilt against the 15-9-0-1 Centennials.