The Trail Smoke Eaters beat the Penticton Vees in two of the three periods Sunday at the Cominco Arena but it was once again a mid-frame lapse that cost them the game.
The Smoke Eaters were leading 1-0 after the first period but six unanswered Penticton goals in the second gave them a 6-1 lead before the Smokies came back in the third to close the gap but come up short 8-5.
Tanner Hicks began the comeback attempt with a blast from the point 90 seconds into the third. Brandon Long then scored his first on the year, showing incredible patience as he went in alone on a break away, made a move and waited for Vee goalie Chad Katunar to go down before he backhanded the puck into the open net.
Garrett McMullen added another 30 seconds later to cut the lead to 6-4 but Penticton replied with goals from Steven Fogarty and Ryan Reilly, both scoring four-point nights for the Vees.
With just under eight minutes to go, Taylor House deflected a shot from Shane Poulsen just under the crossbar to make the score 8-5 but that was a close as the Smokies would get.
Breakdowns in the neutral zone allowed the opportunistic Vees odd-man rushes and free space in front of the net as they out shot the Smokies 17-9 in the period.
“Some of these kids don’t realize that mental toughness is a skill,” said Smokies assistant coach Barry Zanier. “It starts in practice, you have to work hard every time you’re on the ice, you have to think as well, we had some mental breakdowns and you can’t just come to a game and say I’m going to turn it on.”
Tight checking made for a tentative first period but the Smokies jumped out to a 1-0 lead when Clayton Chessa stole the puck from a Vees defenceman, swooped in on goal and rifled a shot top corner.
But the Vees exploited the Smokies lapse in the defensive end in the second.
Connor Reilly started the deluge on a power play 64 seconds into the period with a quick wrist shot over the glove of James D’Andrea. Bryce Gervais potted the next two before Travis St. Denis added one of his own, jumping out of the penalty box and finishing a break-away pass with a nice deke. Mario Lucia and Fogarty added two more to make it 6-1 heading into the third period.
Mid-game lapses has been the biggest problem for the Smokies this season.
“We shut down for eight minutes, 10 minutes or 12 minutes and it’s not one or two goals its four, five, or six,” said coach Bill Birks after the game.
The third period resurgence by the Smokies is definitely a positive sign but it also reflects the Vees recent tough schedule and perhaps a mental lapse of their own.
“It’s our third game in three days, a long road trip for us,” said Vees coach Fred Harbinson. “Obviously I wasn’t happy with our third period, we kind of turned our brains off but you know what that happens sometimes, especially because I think we were a little tired, I’ll give the guys a pass.”