Trail Smoke Eaters stun Merritt Centennials

Injury-plagued Smokies put in a gritty and truly inspiring performance on the ice at the Cominco Arena Tuesday night.

On paper it looked like the Trail Smoke Eaters would be in tough against a healthy Merritt Centennials squad, but some how, some way the injury-plagued Smokies put in a gritty and truly inspiring performance on the ice at the Cominco Arena Tuesday night as the ailing team defeated the Centennials 4-2.

In what assistant coach Barry Zanier called, probably the team’s best complete effort of the year, the Smokies played a hard-hitting, relentless forechecking style that literally knocked the Interior division’s second place team off balance.

“To play four games in five nights, and come out with an effort like that, with a depleted lineup, six guys out of the line up, four APs in again for us, it was just a character win, and a great way to end it before Christmas,” said Brent Heaven, the Smoke Eaters assistant coach.

The Trail injury list is extensive, and includes Brent Baltus, Scott Davidson, Shane Poulsen, Jesse Knowler, Adam Todd, and Braedon Jones. The physical game also took out Mitch Foyle in the third after a hard check knocked the wind out of him.

Yet, it was the type of game in which rugged forward Adam Wheeldon thrives. The Nelson native scored the Smokies fourth goal, was a punishing physical presence on the ice all night, and as a result was named the game’s first star.

“If I had to choose, I’d rather play a physical game than not a physical game,” said Wheeldon. “I had a lot of fun out there tonight and it was really good to get the win.”

It was Wheeldon’s fourth goal of the season, which he scored by corralling a Valik Chichkin rebound and snapping it by Merritt goalie Russell Sanderson.

“Wheels has been good for us all year,” said Heaven. “He plays the same way every single night. He goes to those greasy zones, gets in front, takes a beating a lot, so it’s nice to see him get rewarded.”

Smokies captain Garrett McMullen had another stellar game, scoring the winning goal 1:33 into the third period, when he deftly deflected an Austin Adduono shot through the pads of Sanderson to give the Smokies a 3-1 lead.

Every line contributed to the victory, but especially impressive were affiliate players Riley Brandt of the Beaver Valley Nitehawks and Jamie Vlanich from the Castlegar Rebels.

Playing on a line with Adduono, the  trio fulfilled a vital role in applying constant pressure and owned much of the puck possession.

“They played great,” said Heaven. “Every time they were on the ice, they were in their end, working the cycle, just gritty hockey, and that’s the reason they were out there in the last minute of the game.”

While Brandt acknowledges it’s a different game than the KIJHL, he did not look out of place. Combining physicality with quickness, the 16-year-old Trail native is a solid Smokie prospect.

“I felt pretty good, it’s my third game out there (as an AP),” said Brandt. “I just felt like my feet were moving fast, and it just felt like I was flying out there. ”

The Smokies opened the scoring 21 seconds into the first period, when Riley McDougall beat Sanderson to go up 1-0. Trail kept up the pressure into the second period and was eventually rewarded when Bryce Knapp forced a turnover in the Merritt end and Jake Lucchini blasted home the loose puck to go up 2-0.

“The puck just kind of popped out there and I just shot it, and it ended up going in, so it was really nice,” said Lucchini. “Merritt’s a good team, they’re physical, so it just gets you into the game more and you get more involved, which is good.”

Merrit however, would pressure the Smokies late in the second frame, and despite several great saves, Tyler Martin eventually beat Lyndon Stanwood on a 2-on-1. Following McMullen’s early third-period goal, the Centennials Bennett Huber scored a funny one that slipped by Stanwood to make it 3-2, before Wheeldon iced it.

Trail is tied with West Kelowna in third spot with 33 points, while Merritt sits three points up on Trail, yet with  seven games in hand. West Kelowna has played eight fewer games than the Smokies.

Stanwood was very good between the pipes stopping 35 shots for his 13th victory of the season, while the Smokies fired 32 shots at Sanderson. Tyler Berkholtz also had a solid night counting two assists.

The team now breaks for the holidays and will return to action Jan. 4 when Surrey Eagles visit the Cominco Arena.