The long road to the Cariboo took its toll, as the Trail Smoke Eaters managed just 19 shots on goal in a 4-1 loss on Wednesday night to the Prince George Spruce Kings at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
Trail will look to turn their fortunes around this weekend with two crucial Interior division match ups against the Merritt Centennials and Vernon Vipers.
After playing three-games-in-four-days last week, the Smoke Eaters embarked on a rare 1,000 km midweek jaunt to Prince George on Wednesday to begin another 3-in-4 this week.
“We knew this was going to be one of the most difficult parts of our schedule,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “If you look at the back end of January and especially February, it’s set up pretty well for us, so we knew by doing that it was going to lead to a couple of tough travel weeks, but we’d rather be fresh towards the end.”
Spruce Kings forward Ben Poisson scored the game winner with 4:40 to play in the middle frame. The Maine University commit worked his way to the left face-off circle and fired a shot through traffic and the legs of Smokie goalie Adam Marcoux, for his 11th of the campaign and a 2-1 Prince George lead.
“We were getting a lot of shots and (Marcoux) was playing well and finally when Cory (Cunningham) got one that opened up the floodgates,” Poisson told a Prince George Citizen reporter.
The Spruce Kings improve to 18-7-1-1, and the win puts them two points back of the Chilliwack Chiefs in the Mainland Division, good for second overall in the BCHL standings.
Both the Smoke Eaters and the Spruce Kings came out tentative, with neither exerting much offence in a scoreless first period, as the home team outshot the Smokies 6-2.
However, the teams ramped it up a couple notches in the second. Trail went up 1-0 on the power play when Chase Stevenson banged in a rebound off the post just under five minutes in for his first goal as a Smoke Eater and 11th on the season. Stevenson came over from the Surrey Eagles last week in a deal that sent d-man and Toronto product Jeremy Smith to the Eagles and the playing rights to Trail native Ethan Martini to the Powell River Kings.
But Prince George’s Cory Cunningham beat Marcoux glove side to tie the game at one with 6:47 left to play in the middle frame. Poisson’s goal gave the hosts a 2-1 lead heading into the third period with the Spruce Kings outshooting Trail 17-12 in the period.
“We prepared for three days, and our guys knew what was coming at us,” said Tambellini. “We found a way to get up 1-0, then it was little mistakes – changing at the wrong time, not changing on a couple shifts we got stuck late in the shifts on a couple of goals and it’s tough to come back.”
Prince George locked down the Smokies offence in the third and made it 3-1 off Poisson’s second of the game at 16:42, and delivered the dagger on a power-play marker by Dylan Anhorn with four minutes to play.
The looming Kings defence, shut down the Smoke Eaters offence allowing just four shots in the final frame and 35-19 overall.
The Smoke Eaters forwards are talented and exciting to watch, but, if anything, they lack size. As a result, Trail committed two top-end forwards and one defenceman from the Major Midget Okanagan Rockets earlier this week in Chase Dafoe, Colby Elmer, and defenceman Corey McCann. Notably, all three are over six-foot-two, while currently the Smokies have only three forwards that break the six-foot barrier.
“We knew that was going to be an issue, so we’re bringing in three top recruits all over six-two, there’s a reason we’re doing that,” said Tambellini. “We need to get bigger … and so that’s the focus for us going forward is that I want a bigger team and just as sound a team, but I want to play with more size.”
Trail returns home to play the Centennials tonight and are coming off a 4-2 road loss to Merritt on Saturday. The larger Cominco ice could be a difference maker tonight, in knockingoff the 17-9-0-1 Centennials, who are tied with the Penticton Vees atop the Interior Division and have won five of their past six games.
“I remember the first time I played in there (Nicola Arena), it’s shocking how small it actually is once you get up there. There are dimensions in that rink that are very different than any other rink that we play in, so it’s definitely a home-ice advantage and it’ll be nice to get them on a regular sheet in our building, with the same travel we did going that way.
“We’re always excited to play in front of our fans in our building so we’re definitely looking for a better outcome.”
Last Friday, the Smoke Eaters thrilled over 2,000 home-ice fans with a 3-2 victory over the Wenatchee Wild, and will try for a similar result and turnout tonight.
“We have great fans,” added Tambellini. “They give us home-ice advantage and make it a hard place to play. That’s one of the great things about playing in Trail, we had three young recruits here last week that walked away from that experience thinking this was one of the most outstanding buildings they’ve ever been apart of. It’s definitely a place our players like playing in and we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
The puck drop against the Centennials goes at 7 p.m. tonight at the Cominco Arena. Trail travels to Vernon to take on the Vipers on Saturday at 6 p.m. Tune into the game on mixlr.com/trail-smoke-eaters as well as HockeyTV.com with the Voice of the Smoke Eaters, Trevor Miller.