With five of their top forwards out of the line up, goals were hard to come by on Saturday as the Trail Smoke Eaters fell to the Merritt Centennials 4-0 at the Cominco Arena.
First-period goals from Christian Sabin and Chase Bell gave the Centennials an early 2-0 lead and Merritt goalie Jacob Berger did the rest, shutting down the Smokies for a 41-save shutout.
The loss is the fifth straight for a Smokies team frustrated by injuries and opposing goalies, yet intent on playing through the adversity.
“We just need to stick to the process, and the results are going to be there at the end of the day,” said Smoke Eaters assistant coach Jessie Leung. “Obviously we’d like to see our special teams connect, our power play connect a bit more, but when you put 41 shots on a goalie, you should score a couple there. Process-wise we’re doing the right things, it’s just sticking to it and make sure our players and leadership group keep us going in the right direction.”
Following a 6-3 setback to the Vernon Vipers on Friday, Trail’s top three scorers were out of the line up including Ross Armour and Levi Glasman, who along with defenceman Seth Barton were off to Calgary for the Canada West selection camp for the World Jr. A Challenge, and assistant captain Kale Howarth, away for personal reasons. Combined with injuries to veteran forwards Blaine Caton and Braeden Tuck, the Smoke Eaters were in tough against a Merritt team that has now won three straight and four of their past five matches.
For Merritt, the challenge was to take advantage of a shorthanded Smoke Eaters team and execute at every opportunity.
“You’ve really got to give credit to them (Trail) they have a very short bench and are missing some key guys, so they came out and played really hard and made our lives difficult in our own end for a long time,” said Cents’ assistant coach Matt Samson. “All the credit to them, but our goalie stood on his head. He was the best player for us. It’s always tough coming here … but we grinded one out so we’ll take it.”
The Smoke Eaters owned puck-possession in the second period, outshooting Merritt 16-2, but was stymied by the Minnetonka, Minn. goalie. Trail had a number of golden opportunities, but a couple shots off the post, a stop by Merritt defenceman Mike Van Unen on an open-net op, and a big pad save on a Carter Jones breakaway late in the period kept the shutout intact.
Merritt went up 3-0 on a Zach Zorn shorthanded goal 2:51 into the third, and the Yellowknife native notched his 11th of the season for the 4-0 final with four minutes remaining. Trail outshot the Cents 14-4 in the period and 41-16 in the match, but went 0-for-7 on the power play while Merritt was 1-for-4.
Trail filled the holes in the line up with affiliate players Bradley Ross and Aiden Jenner from the Beaver Valley Nitehawks, and Kent Johnson of the Burnaby Winter Club. The Smokies also saw Carter Jones and Ryan Murphy return from injury Friday, and both made an impression, in spite of the loss.
“It was a good atmosphere, the fans were pretty rowdy, it just wasn’t the outcome we hoped for,” said Murphy, who played his last game on Nov. 5 before being sidelined with a lower body injury. “Bounces weren’t going our way, but it felt unreal to get out there. I had the jitters, which is always nice for a big game, and we’re going to come out Wednesday (against Wenatchee) looking for blood.”
On Friday, Trail rallied back from a 2-0 deficit, but the ice was tilted in the Vipers favour, and penalties proved their undoing; Vernon scored all six goals on the power play in the 6-3 win.
Tallies from Brett Stapley and Josh Prokop put Vernon up in the opening period, as the Vipers fired 18 shots at Trail goalie Brandon Wells.
The Smokies Seth Barton made it 2-1 just 21 seconds into the middle frame, and Tyler Ghirardosi tied it 20 seconds later. However, Vernon regained the lead on Prokop’s 14th of the season on another power play at 7:14, but Jones tied it again for Trail despite the Smokies being handed eight minor penalties to Vernon’s single minor in the second period alone.
“At the end of the day, as a team, as a coach and as a hockey player, you control what you control and that’s what you focus on,” said Leung. “You’re never going to be able to control what the referees are choosing to call.”
Chris Jandric made it 4-3 on another power play before the period was out, and the Vipers added two more power-play markers in the third period for the home victory.
Vernon went 6-for-14 with the extra man, while Trail was 0-for-2. The Vipers outshot Trail 38-24.
The losses drop Trail (19-9-2-0) to fourth place in the Interior Division a point behind 19-8-2-1 Wenatchee, and five back of the Vipers (21-7-0-4), but with two games in hand.
Trail’s next game goes in Wenatchee against the Wild on Wednesday.