Almost one year ago to the day, the Trail Smoke Eaters celebrated a Game 7 upset victory over the Penticton Vees, and will look for the same result tonight against the Vernon Vipers.
The Smokies 5-2 Game 6 victory on Saturday at the Cominco Arena gave the team confidence and momentum heading into the final match of the Interior Division semifinal.
“It was an outstanding win,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Our guys played so hard, they’ve played hard all series, and we felt really good about our game from Game 1 on. We’re in a great battle, in a great series, with a very good team over there so we’re in for a great Game 7.”
Smokies veteran goalie Adam Marcoux returned to the crease for the first time since suffering an injury on Feb. 8. The Calgary product was ready for action come playoff time, but former WHLer Donovan Buskey’s outstanding play to finish the regular season, left Tambellini little choice but to stick with the hot goalie through 10 playoff games – which included a 6-0 run after losing Game 1 to Merritt in the first round.
Following the Game 5 loss to Vernon, Marcoux got the call and didn’t miss a beat. Marcoux stopped 46 shots in the 5-2 victory, and, Tambellini hopes the Smokies leader will get the same result as last year’s win over the Vees.
“That’s the best part of having goaltending depth,” said Tambellini. “Donovan Buskey took it for 45 days in a row, played every minute, then Adam came back rested, motivated – I know he was chomping to get back in there. But that’s what you want, when you get in a tough spot, you have a 20-year-old starting goalie come in and he played fantastic, he was the best player on the ice tonight, and we’re so fortunate to have two great goalies.”
For Marcoux, sitting and watching is the hardest thing for a veteran goalie, who started 42 games for the Smoke Eaters this season. But he seized the opportunity, was steady all night, positionally sound between the pipes, controlled his rebounds, and made several spectacular saves to keep the Smokies relevant.
“It was one of those games where we had to come in and play our best,” said Marcoux. “It was do-or-die for us tonight. As for my performance, just coming in when the team needs me. Donovan Buskey has been great, and it’s all about coming in at the right time and really supporting the team, and I think they did a really good job of supporting me and keeping shots to the outside as well.”
Hayden Rowan opened the scoring for the Smoke Eaters with 2:34 left in the first period. Spencer McLean flew down the left boards and centered to a streaking Rowan, who went top shelf on Porter for a 1-0 lead. Mack Byers then snuck behind the Vipers goalie to shovel in a loose puck for a 2-0 lead with 30 seconds remaining in the opening stanza.
The Smokies took a 3-0 lead on Kent Johnson’s seventh playoff goal, as the rookie forward fired in a rebound off a Tyler Ghiardosi shot for what proved to be the game winner.
Vernon forward Ben Sanderson got the Vipers on the board scoring his third of the postseason at the 17:24 mark. Marcoux made two sprawling pad saves off Sanderson, before the Vernon player finally put it in on the third try to cut the Smokies lead to 3-1 heading into the third.
The Smokies squandered leads in all three of the series losses versus the Vipers, but not on this night. Trail withstood the Vipers pressure and caught the Snakes up-ice on a number of quick transitions. Trail enjoyed a flurry of odd-man rushes and capitalized when Braeden Tuck sent Owen Ozar in on a breakaway. The Prince Albert native went high glove side for a 4-1 Trail lead at 12:45.
“We’ve started well every game,” said Tambellini. “We talked about finding our momentum then staying on them. And to get the 3-0 goal, then 4-1 goal was so important to finally get over that one-goal game and putting it up for grabs.”
Byers then notched his fifth of the playoff, making a slick move around the defenceman then snapping it over the shoulder of Porter to make it 5-1 with just over five minutes to play.
“Mack’s been outstanding, he’s having a great playoff. He does a lot of things that nobody sees, but when he can come on and score two big goals like that, that’s the depth we’re looking for.”
Vernon’s Michael Young scored a late power-play goal for the Vipers on a point shot that sailed through traffic and by Marcoux for the 5-2 final.
The Vipers outshot the Smoke Eaters 48-29 and were 1-for-1 on the power play, while Trail went 0-for-3.
Marcoux was named Fortis Energy Player of the game for his poised and inspiring performance.
“It’s tough coming back after a month and a half of doing physio,” said Marcoux. “But mentally I knew there was probably some point I was going to have to come into a game like this. I wasn’t giving up, I wasn’t checked out, it was all about I knew the moment was going to come and I wasn’t going to let it slip by.”
Byers earned the first-star nod, with Rowan and Ghirardosi taking second and third star honours.
Impressed with the Game 6 win, coach Tambellini is confident heading into Game 7.
“We go in with great momentum. Our group has dealt with a ton of adversity this year, and we feel like those 21 guys in that room can handle a lot of things. We don’t get ahead of ourselves, and I know our guys are going to prepare and I know they’ll be ready for Game 7.”
The winner will face the defending BCHL champion, Wenatchee Wild in the Interior final. The Wild beat the Cowichan Capitals 4-3 in overtime on Sunday for a 4-2 series victory.