A murky Interior Division playoff picture is beginning to clear, as the Trail Smoke Eaters clinched home ice in the first-round of the Interior Division playoffs thanks to a surging Salmon Arm Silverbacks team.
The Smokies split with Merritt in a home-and-home on the weekend, coming back from a 3-1 first-period deficit to score an 8-5 victory on Friday at home over the Centennials, before falling 4-2 to the Cents on Saturday in Merritt.
The Smoke Eaters had a strong first period in Merritt and led 1-0, after Justen James netted his second goal as a Smoke Eater when Josh Laframboise sent the Creston Valley Thunder Cat AP in on a breakaway. James beat Merritt goalie Coleton Lancaster on a deke to the backhand, as Trail outshot Merritt 13-9 in the period.
Despite a solid first frame, Smokies coach Cam Keith said the team looked fatigued in the second, following Friday night’s home-game win where the Smokies iced just three lines.
“We won the home game and that was important, so having home ice is going to be a definite advantage for us in the playoffs.”
The Cents came out hungry in the second period with Nick Fidanza pulling Merritt even midway through the period, and Cade Gleekel beating Smoke Eaters goalie Zach Dyment on a power play at 13:13 for a 2-1 Cents lead. Chase Bell’s goal at 17:31 made it 3-1 as the Centennials fired 25 shots at the Trail net.
The score remained 3-1 until the final minute thanks in large part to the Cents goalie. With the Trail net empty, Carter Cochrane scored with 45 seconds remaining to make it 3-2, but Merritt’s Brett Jewell capped off the victory with 10 seconds left on the clock for the 4-2 final.
Merritt outshot Trail 41-40 in the game, and were 1-for-2 on the power play, while Trail was 0-for-1.
The Merritt victory meant the race for home-ice advantage was still in doubt – until Sunday – when a hot Salmon Arm team shutout Merritt, 1-0, leaving the Cents four points behind Trail and West Kelowna in the Interior Division standings and only two games left to play. If Merritt (21-25-8-2) and the Smoke Eaters (25-25-5-1) end up tied, Trail would take the higher seed regardless and earn home ice due to more wins.
The 22-28-3-3 Silverbacks, meanwhile, won its third game in a row and are just two points back of Merritt with two games to play, and can drop the Cents to sixth place if they finish tied or better.
The Smokies are even with West Kelowna in third place with 56 points, but with the Warriors holding a game in hand and two more wins than Trail, the Okanagan team can claim third spot with two-of-three victories in its remaining matches this week. The Smokies play a home-and-home versus Vernon next weekend, and although the Smokies have the fourth seed clinched, if third place is attainable, they’re not about to let up.
“We have to make sure that we’re playing the right kind of hockey going into playoffs,” said Keith. “If you start to let up then these games you take the value out of them and it can hurt you.”
West Kelowna faces Penticton, Merritt, and Salmon Arm in its final week of play, so Trail will likely have to win out in Vernon to have a chance at the third seed.
On Friday, Andre Ghantous finished with a four-point night that included a highlight-reel goal in the Smokies 8-5 come-from-behind victory over Merritt. Trail fell behind early as Merritt scored on its first two shots of the game to take a 2-0 lead. Corbyn Chabot drew the Smokies to within one but Nicholas Wicks beat Trail goalie Linden Marshall for a 3-1 Merritt advantage heading into the middle frame.
Connor Brown-Maloski notched his 15th of the campaign batting in a loose puck with assists to Luke Santerno and Cochrane at 5:28, but Zach Court scored less than a minute later to restore the two goal lead. Trail refused to go gentle into that good night as the Smokies stormed back with Jeremy Lucchini notching his second of the season at 10:48, and Blaine Caton tied it at 14:11 on the power play. Ghantous gave Trail the lead on a great individual effort, as the California product wheeled around the net, beat a defenceman, spun and wired a wrist shot top corner for his ninth goal of the season.
Merritt’s Zach Risteau tied it up in the third, but Caton tallied his second of the night and what proved to be the winning goal on a pretty passing play from Ghantous at 6:09 of the third for a 6-5 Smoke Eater lead. Chabot tallied his second 46 seconds later, and Braeden Tuck iced it with an empty netter at 18:05 for the 8-5 victory.
The Smokies outshot Merritt 28-26, and went 3-for-4 on the power play, while Merritt was 0-for-3. Caton earned first star honours, with Brown-Maloski and Ghantous taking second and third stars, and Chabot the Fortis Energy Player of the Game for his three-point night and litany of crushing body checks.
The Smokies hope to see Kale Howarth and Mitch Stapley back this weekend, but the pair will be a game-time decision. Ross Armour has the cast removed from his hand this week, and is expected to return for the first round of playoffs starting Mar. 3.
“I’m really excited about when we get some of these key elements back and how a lot of times when it happens, it kind of lifts your team up and give you that extra boost you need,” added Keith.
Trail’s final regular season home game goes on Friday when they host the Vernon Vipers at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena. The Smokies wrap up the season on Saturday in Vernon.