Trail Smoke Eaters: Sandler finds scoring touch

Trail Smokie Eaters are on a three game winning streak

The Trail Smoke Eaters are streaking in the right direction this week, thanks to a pair of double-overtime wins.

Garrett McMullen, Brent Baltus, and Tyler Berkholz had big games last week in leading the Smokies to 2-1 and 6-5 victories over Vernon and Langley, but it was Luke Sandler who led the team with five points over the three games.

Sandler may have felt a little out of his element when first arriving in Trail, but he has certainly grown more comfortable in recent weeks, as he piled up four goals and an assist to lead the Smokies to three wins in its last three starts.

The 19-year-old forward banged in the tying goal late in the third period, to send a 5-5 game against Langley on Friday into overtime, where defenceman Braden Pears would ice it for the Smokies in double OT.

Sandler’s contibution has been significant lately and includes a hat trick in a 6-3 win against league-leading Chilliwack last week, in addition to the tying goal against Langley.

“It was nice (his first BCHL hat trick), it took a while, but it was nice,” said Sandler.

Sandler has racked up 16 points in the last 17 games, after netting just three points in his first 10 as a Smokie, and while it may have taken a little time to get comfortable, he is feeling much more at home now.

“It’s a role I usually come into,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough here to finally start contributing . . . I was pretty quiet at first, and wasn’t really happy, but now it’s kind of nice to see it start happening.”

The Smoke Eaters picked up Sandler in a Sept. 20 trade with Cowichan Valley Capitals for the rights to Travis Stephens. Sandler, a native of Chicago, Ill., played in the U.S. Junior Hockey League with stints in Des Moines, Iowa, Tri City, Wash., and Fargo N.D., before crossing the 49th parallel for a brief stay in Cowichan.

The rugged forward has been a welcome fixture up front, combining physical play and 51 penalty minutes to go with a scoring touch that has netted him 12 goals and nine assists this season. Incidentally, Stephens, now with the Coquitlam Express, has just three goals.

“It’s good for him to get back to putting the puck in the net,” said assistant coach Brent Heaven. “We’ve been talking to him about shooting the puck a lot more. He likes to kind of dangle guys so being a big body like he is – six-foot-two, 200 pounds – he needs to buy into that power-forward role and he’s starting to do that.”

With injuries and illness hurting the Smokies of late, line juggling has been a necessity, but the team has adapted and showed a lot of character in the late comeback wins.

“We got behind the eight ball a little bit early, but it was good to see we could battle back,” said Heaven. “I think it’s the sixth time this year that we’ve been losing going into the third period and we came back to win so it builds some confidence in the guys and obviously getting four points on a crucial weekend was big.”

Trail is looking to continue its run this week when it plays four games in five days beginning Friday in West Kelowna against the Warriors, then returning home for three games against Vernon Saturday, Nanaimo Sunday, and Merritt on Tuesday.