The Trail Smoke Eaters kept its playoff hopes alive Tuesday with a crucial 5-3 win over the Salmon Arm SilverBacks.
It wasn’t the prettiest game the Smoke Eaters played this season, but despite being outshot, the team showed a ton of heart in finding a way to gut out the victory.
“Our first 10-minutes was horrible, and our last 20 was horrible in our eyes,” said Trail coach and GM Bill Birks. “That was probably our worst segments of games, but our last 15 games we’ve been playing pretty good. Todd played really well . . . and to hang on was good.”
Trail netminder Adam Todd stole the show, outplaying an uncharacterically shaky Adam Clarke in the Backs’ net. The 18 year old stopped 31 shots and earned a first-star nod, thanks in part to 13 saves in the final period – a few of the scintillating variety when Salmon Arm, down 4-3, pressed hard at the end.
Clarke, one of the top-ranked goalies in the BCHL, stopped just 21 of 26 shots, and while making some quality saves, also let in a couple of the soft variety.
Smokies leading scorer Brent Baltus netted the winner with nine seconds remaining in the second period after a tremendous feed from captain Garrett McMullen. With time winding down in the period, McMullen lifted the puck at centre ice over the defender’s head. The lob settled down perfectly on the stick of a streaking Baltus, who made no mistake on the breakaway beating Clarke five-hole to give the Smokies a 4-2 lead.
McMullen then tangled with Salmon Arm’s Alex Gillies, going toe-toe and garnering two-thirds of a Gordie Howe hat trick on one play.
“I’m not a huge fighter, so that doesn’t happen very often, but it’s great having Baltsy back,” said McMullen. “Me and him have a great chemistry, and we’ve been playing good for almost a year and a little bit now, so we definitely know when each other are out there, and its great having him back in the lineup.”
The Smokies looked tentative out of the gate, and the Backs’ Steven Iacobellis made them pay, snapping a quick cross-ice pass from Brayden Sherbinin over a sprawling Todd 4:17 into the first.
“It was a slow start on our part, I don’t know what it was all about because we were pretty pumped for this game,” said McMullen. “We had a nice little break, maybe it was the nine days between games, we got caught a little slow-footed out there.”
However, the Smokies would awaken when Mitch Foyle pounced on a Luke Sandler rebound and buried it to tie it at 1-1 heading into the second.
Adam Wheeldon gave the Smokies a jump with a crushing hit, then a knuckle exchange with Ryan Schwalbe six-minutes in, but it was a 5-on-3 penalty kill midway through the second, which really swung the momentum in Trail’s favour.
After McMullen was foiled on a break away coming out of the box, Baltus started his three-point night by sending a pass to Marley Keca whose point shot was redirected past Clarke by Austin Adduono to put Trail up 2-1.
Two minutes later, an innocent looking shot from Shane Poulsen found its way through traffic and by a bewildered Gorillas goalie, to make it 3-1 Smokies.
Salmon Arm defenceman Shane Hannah replied, picking up a give away at 17:04 and blasting a shot from the slot by the Courtenay native to cut the lead to one.
Baltus’ goal restored the two-goal cushion, but things looked dire right from the start of the third. Foyle took a hooking penalty 26 seconds in and 10 seconds later Sherbinin jammed home a loose puck past Todd to make it 4-3.
Salmon Arm pressed and the Smokies looked baffled at times trying to clear the puck from their end, but Todd stood tall robbing point-blank attempts from Gillies and Iacobellis late in the game. With Clarke pulled for an extra attacker, Todd would foil the Backs one more time making a great glove save, before McMullen gift wrapped an empty netter for Baltus with 20 seconds remaining.
The Smokies are now just four points back of Salmon Arm for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Interior division with eight games remaining. While the SilverBacks enjoy two games in hand, the prospect of not making the post season is not an option for the Smokies players.
“It’s not even a question in that room over there,” said McMullen. “It’s not if, it’s when. We’re just going to approach it one game at a time, one win at a time, that’s how we’re doing it.”
The Smoke Eaters play Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Friday at the Cominco Arena at 7:30 p.m.