After going up two games to none, few expected the Penticton Vees to be playing in a Game 7 do-or-die match against the Trail Smoke Eaters on Monday but, in hockey, anything is possible.
“Before the series starts, people are making predictions,” said Penticton assistant coach Matt Fraser. “I see a lot of Penticton in five, Trail in six or whatever – almost no one ever bets on seven but secretly hopes it goes the distance. So after the way we played last year in our playoffs, going to three Game 7s, it doesn’t surprise me.”
The Vees won all three of its 2017 playoff series against Merritt, Vernon, and Chilliwack, and looked to do the same in front of their home crowd Monday night.
The Smoke Eaters had a chance to ice the Vees’ season after winning Game 5 in Penticton and going up 3-2 in the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal, with Game 6 in Trail Saturday. But the pressure of playing in front of a sell-out crowd of 3,200 home fans may have got to the Smoke Eaters, as they fell 6-1.
“I think maybe some of us saw the huge crowd and maybe just got a little too excited and tried to do too much,” said Smoke Eater captain Troy Ring. “But it’s okay, I think we’re just going to take the positives out of the three games we won and use that as momentum for Game 7.”
The Smoke Eaters have made the Interior Division final twice in its history. The 1996-97 team was loaded with Trail product Steve McCarthy, Travis Roche, and Massimo Provenzano but lost to the Vernon Vipers, while the 2002-03 team with David Eccles, Mick Lawrence, and goaltender Kevin Hachey fell to Penticton.
Trail played a textbook road game in Penticton on Friday to take the series lead. Levi Glasman scored twice as the Smokies led 3-2 with two minutes to play. However, Trail forward Kale Howarth took a hooking penalty, leaving the Smoke Eaters two-men short, once the Vees pulled goalie Adam Scheel for an extra attacker. But Smokies forward Braeden Tuck managed to work the puck into the neutral zone and backhand it into the empty net for a 4-2 lead with 1:41 remaining. Penticton pulled within one after Taylor Ward blasted a shot from the circle past Trail goalie Adam Marcoux, leaving 29 tense seconds to tick off before celebrating the Game 5 victory.
“It (the 4-3 win on Friday) was unbelievable,” said Ring. “It definitely shows that we can win in that rink and now we’re just going to have to do it all over again on Monday.”
In Saturday’s Game 6 match, a nervous Smokies team had trouble getting the offence going, and the Vees launched a sustained attack that struck once in the first period, and three times in the second to take a 4-0 lead.
Trail’s Tyler Ghirardosi notched his eighth goal of the playoff on a pretty 2-on-1 with Andre Ghantous to cut the lead to 4-1, but Trail was held to just five shots in the third period and 19 in the game, as a hat trick from Marcus Mitchell and two goals from Massimo Rizzo propelled the Vees to the 6-1 victory.
The Smokies held Vees leading scorer Owen Sillinger off the score sheet and Ward to one assist, but the emergence of Mitchell and Rizzo reveals a Vees lineup whose depth is tough to match.
“I thought we were prepared right from the get-go,” said Fraser. “The guys weren’t nervous they were excited to be a part of this game. Not everybody in the league gets a chance to play in a game as big as this and we viewed it as an opportunity to do something special.”
Discipline again played a factor in Game 6, more for the noted lack of penalties, as both teams stayed out of the box except for a late call in the final minute against Trail. The Smoke Eaters held a decided edge at home going 4-for-8 on the power play, while Penticton was 0-for-8 at the Cominco Arena. The Vees meanwhile went 8-for-18 at home, with Trail scoring once on 11 opportunities.
“It’s important for both teams this whole series,” said Fraser. “It seems like the team that took the more penalties lost the game, so we really focused on that keeping the sticks away from the hands, moving our feet in stead of using our sticks, and playing a clean game focusing on moving the puck and on our offence.”
With a win, Trail will play Wenatchee in the Interior Division final following a Wild 4-3 Game 6 overtime victory over the Vernon Vipers.
For the Smoke Eaters, given that the Vees are the BCHL regular-season champions, taking the number-1 seed to Game 7 is normally a feather in the proverbial cap for the number-4 seed, yet, poses no consolation for a Trail team committed to win.
“We knew this series wasn’t going to be a sprint,” said Ring. “It was definitely going to be a marathon. It was going to go at least six or seven games, so it was exactly what we were expecting, and we’re excited to play.”
In the Island Division, the Powell River Kings defeated the Victoria Grizzlies, 4-3, to win the series in six. The Kings now play a Prince George Spruce Kings team that battled back from a 3-1 series deficit and defeated the Surrey Eagles 4-0 in Game 7 on Sunday.
The winner of the Island-Mainland division final best-of-seven series will play the winner of the Interior Division final for the Fred Page Cup.