Few wins are more satisfying than a victory over the league-leading Penticton Vees, and a Kale Howarth hat trick helped the Trail Smoke Eaters savour the moment following a 5-3 victory Wednesday night at the Cominco Arena.
The Smoke Eaters earned every bit of their 15th win from goaltending to special teams, defence and offence, the Smokies executed their game plan against a fast and talent-laden team almost to perfection.
“We wanted to minimize their chances, kind of play outside the dots, any shots that we’re going to give up we wanted to keep to the outside,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “Against a team like Penticton you can only do that to a certain degree, you have to minimize their opportunities and we did a pretty good job of that.”
With the scored tied 3-3 late in the third period, Smoke Eaters forward Blaine Caton won a face off in the Vees end back to Spencer McLean and the Montrose native fired a snap shot from the top of the circle under the arm of Penticton goalie Mat Robson for the game winner with 6:49 to play in regulation.
“Cates (Caton) won the draw and kind of kicked it back to me, and I just tried to get it off as soon as I could,” said McLean. “I don’t think I got all of it and I think it just rolled in, but I’ll take it.”
McLean’s seventh goal hands the Vees just their fifth loss of the season, in what was a physical and sometimes controversial affair. Penticton coach and GM Fred Harbinson was certain that his team scored a goal in the first period that was waved off by the officials, and frustration peaked when Penticton’s former WHLer, Duncan Campbell, received a 10-minute misconduct midway through the third period. Earlier in the match the former Brandon Wheat King delivered a crushing late hit on McLean, and the hockey gods rewarded the Smokies when Campbell was sent packing just minutes before McLean tallied the winner.
“It feels good,” said McLean of his line’s contribution. “It feels good for our line, and it feels good for our whole team.”
The Vees took a 1-0 lead on a point shot from Johnny Tychonick with 6:34 remaining in the opening frame. But the Smokies tied it on the power play when Howarth took a pass down low from Luke Santerno and fired a shot from a difficult angle off starting goalie Nolan Hildebrand and in just 69 seconds into the second period.
Three minutes later, Howarth struck again gathering a head-man pass from Connor Brown-Maloski off his skate, flying down the left wing, and wiring a wrist shot from the left dot to chase Hildebrand from the net for a 2-1 lead. After Chris Klack of the Vees was sent off for interference, Howarth banged in a rebound off a Santerno shot for his 17th of the season to complete the hat trick and give the Smokies a 3-1 lead despite a 17-14 edge in shots for the Vees after two.
“It felt pretty good,” said Howarth. “It’s the first one in a while, and the first in the BCHL but just happy to get the two points.”
The Vees stormed back when Ty Amonte’s wrist shot from the top of the circle eluded Dyment through a screen 3:43 into the third period, and defenceman James Miller scored a similar goal from the blue line, sending a floater through traffic to tie it 3-3 with 13 minutes to play.
“A team like Penticton, they came out in the third very hard, and we were expecting it,” said Keith. “I think they got a couple of lucky goals, but I give a lot of credit to our locker room again, they held to the game plan and didn’t deter too much.”
The Vees struggled to generate any pressure after McLean’s winner, despite enjoying a power play when Caton was sent off for interference with 6:15 left on the clock. Trail’s penalty kill came up big, and the Smokies iced it when d-man Jonas Gordon sent Santerno in on a breakaway. The Smithers native made no mistake swooping in and firing it five-hole on Robson for a 5-3 lead with just 2:46 remaining in regulation. Dyment then stymied Amonte on a breakaway with just over a minute to play to preserve the two-goal lead.
“It’s a good thing about how things have been progressing this year when we’re down one goal or tied,” said Keith. “Leadership in that room kind of picks up the slack when things are tough … and we’ve been able to get much-needed points in those tight games.”
The Vees outshot Trail 29-19 and were 0-for-4 on the power play, while Trail went 2-for-4 on their extra-man opportunities.
Howarth was the game’s first star, McLean second star, and the Vees Ty Amonte third star. Santerno had a goal and two assists on the night, while Smoke Eater defenceman Mitch Stapley pitched in with two helpers.
The Smoke Eaters will be without Rossland native Ross Armour and Howarth for the three-game slate this weekend as they head to Alberta for the Team Canada West camp leading up to the World Junior A Challenge.
“It’s going to be pretty amazing, and I know the boys (Smokies) will pull through,” said Howarth. “It’s going to be a great experience in Team Canada. Not everyone gets to go to a Team Canada camp so getting chosen for that is pretty surreal. I’m just going to take it all in and go there and do my best.”
Trail’s next home game goes on Friday when they host the Alberni Valley Bulldogs at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena. Trail travels to Salmon Arm for a tilt against the Silverbacks on Saturday, then return to the Cominco Arena to play the Powell River Kings at 3 p.m. on Sunday.