After dropping the final game of 2015 on Wednesday, 4-1, to the West Kelowna Warriors, the Trail Smoke Eaters kicked off the New Year on a winning note with a 4-0 shutout of the struggling Surrey Eagles on Saturday.
Smokies’ leading scorer Nick Halloran scored twice, goaltender Linden Marshall recorded his first BCHL shutout, and captain Evan MacEachern netted what proved to be the winning goal 3:11 into the first period to give Trail its 18th victory of the season, one shy of last year’s total.
“We still feel for two months here, that we still have to become a better hockey team,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “Playing teams like Kelowna has proven that we’re not consistently getting the results we need in those kinds of games against those opponents. But if I look across the ice, I do like the progress a lot of our players have made versus other teams. I think there’s a lot of growth there.”
The victory launches the 18-20-0-0 Smoke Eaters a point ahead of the Vernon Vipers in the BCHL’s Interior division standings. Following Vernon’s 6-0 loss to Penticton Friday, Trail seized sole possession of the fourth and final playoff spot in the division with the win over Surrey.
Less than a minute after MacEachern took a feed from Mitch Stapley and wired it by Eagles goalie Daniel Davidson, the Trail captain set up Halloran who fired home his 17th goal of the season to make it 2-0.
Trail forward Kienan Scott then scored his league-leading fifth shorthanded goal on a breakaway to make it 3-0 at the 10:49 mark. Halloran then finished off the scoring on the power play on a pretty set up from Scott and Ross Armour with just over four minutes to play in the middle frame.
The 17-year-old Marshall was solid in net, stopping 25 shots for his fifth win of the season, and was named the game’s first star, while Halloran earned second star nod and Davidson the third star for the Eagles.
Marshall hasn’t seen a lot of action of late. Playing behind 20-year-old starter Bailey MacBurnie, who has been outstanding the past two months, doesn’t open a lot of windows of opportunity for the Victoria native.
“Linden had only played one game in that month of December, and 20 minutes on the Island, and we didn’t want him to sit for too long so it was a great opportunity for him to get into a game into the New Year, get his confidence,” said Deschenes. “I mean he had a shut out, he played really well, he was tested, and stood up to the challenge.”
It was Marshall’s first start since Dec. 1, but coming in and playing as well as he did is a good sign for Trail going down the stretch.
“We’re happy with both goaltenders. At times the flood gates do open, but for the most part Linden is proving himself more and more capable of being a Junior A goaltender, and we’re pretty excited for where his career is going to take off. And Bailey, he has been playing how we expected of him when we signed him in the summer time.”
While the Smoke Eaters may not have as many university commits or the depth of last year’s team, this years team’s success speaks volumes, says Deschenes.
“As far as playing as a team and really getting the goaltending we need is proving to be the right formula.”
The win comes on the heels of a 4-1 loss to division rivals West Kelowna Warriors on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena. Trail has an 0-3 record against their division rival this year, and the Warriors sit 12 points up on the Smoke Eaters in the Interior division standings.
“I thought we played well enough to give ourselves a chance, but couldn’t score,” said Deschenes. “Their goalie has been playing pretty well … It seems like every game has a different story line, but if you look at the start of the year until now, it is not a team that is so far ahead of us now where we’re not competitive.”
Quin Foreman, Liam Blackburn, and Jonathon Desbiens put the Warriors up 3-0 before Kale Howarth replied for Trail early in the third period. Blackburn then netted his 20th of the season into an empty net to round out the scoring on the night.
The Warriors outshot Trail 43-35 with Matthew Greenfield getting the win and first star for West K, and Bailey MacBurnie, took the loss in net for Trail, and was the game’s second star, while Blackburn took third star honours.
Despite the loss, the Smokies 6-4 record in December is a remarkable improvement over the past three years. Trail failed to win a single game in either December 2013 or ‘14 and the winless stretches half way through the season proved the decisive dagger to the heart of any playoff hopes.
“It (December) was huge. We beat some pretty good teams and our goal was to put ourselves in a position to get into the playoffs, and we’ve done that now, so as a group we have to take the next step. We have to accept and be confident that this is where we belong and as a team we can accomplish this, which hasn’t been done for a while in Trail. So it’s exciting, whenever your playing for something on the line, it definitely makes things more interesting.”
The Smoke Eaters play on the road for their next five games, with games in Coquitlam, Chilliwack and Surrey this weekend. The Smokies return to the Cominco Arena to host the Powell River Kings on Jan. 17.
Smoke Signals: The game against the 5-30-0-1 Eagles also should have heralded the return of former Smoke Eater Kurt Black to the Cominco Arena since requesting a trade in November. However, Black along with two other Surrey players were suspended for the game after engaging in a brawl with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks on Friday. Black, Trent Huitema, Gage Mackie, and head coach Blaine Neufeld were given two-game suspensions, leaving the team shorthanded in Saturday’s match versus Trail. Three players from Salmon Arm, Marcus Mitchell, Mitch Newsome, and Cam Coutre, as well as head coach Brandon West were also suspended for two games.