With parents in the stands and expectations high, the Trail Smoke Eaters rose to the occasion on the weekend winning a pair of home games, including a crucial victory over Interior-Division-leading rivals, the Vernon Vipers.
An instance of poetic justice saw former Viper, Blaine Caton, score what proved to be the winning goal, as the Smoke Eaters defeated Vernon 4-1 on Sunday at the Cominco Arena, after beating the Surrey Eagles 7-4 on Friday.
Blaine’s father Murray Caton, backstopped the Vernon Lakers to two Centennial Cups back in the early nineties, and is currently a scout for the team, while Blaine suited up in 48 games for the Snakes during the 2014-15 season scoring four goals and four assists before being released.
“Personally, it’s awesome winning against your former team, every night you can,” said Caton. “For our team, that’s a team we haven’t beat over there, so trying to match up with them in the playoffs, it’s just good to show the guys in the room that we can beat a team like that.”
Caton’s timely 13th tally came with less than a second remaining in the first period, as the Vernon native gathered a rebound off a scramble in front and lifted the puck over Vernon goalie Anthony Yamnitsky for a 2-1 Smoke Eaters lead with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
“I actually didn’t even know how much time was left on the clock,” said Caton. “I saw Jer (Lucchini) pick up the puck in the neutral zone and start skating … I went to the front of the net and he threw it there, it popped out and lucky enough it was there on my stick.”
The victory over the Vipers was the Smokies first in five tries this year and was as significant as victories get with 11 games to play in the regular season.
“It was a huge mental obstacle,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Cam Keith. “We needed confidence that we can beat Vernon. For whatever reason it carried over from last year to this year, and for us in our room, we made a big statement that if we play our game we can beat any team at any time, so it was huge.”
Defenceman Connor Welsh gave Trail a 1-0 lead at 5:14 of the first period when he corralled a loose puck at the blue line and wired a shot over the glove of Yamnitsky for his ninth goal of the season. However, Vernon tied it when a missed drop pass to Smokies d-man Seth Barton turned into a 2-on-1 for the Vipers. Jesse Lansdell broke down the right wing and feathered a pass over to Josh Prokop whose one-timer beat a sprawling Adam Marcoux at 11:53 of the first.
Penalty trouble subdued a Smoke Eaters attack in the second period, as Trail focused on killing five penalties including a 5-on-3 Vernon advantage midway through the period.
“I think the 5-on-3 was a real big one,” said Keith. “I mean your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Adam Marcoux has been absolutely tremendous. He makes big saves at big times, and calms the game down.”
That Smokies’ kill proved to be a turning point as Marcoux made his best save of the night off Prokop. With the Smokies shorthanded, the Vernon forward took a backdoor pass at the far post and was looking at an empty net, but the Smokies goalie stretched out and stopped the puck with his right pad, not once but twice, to preserve the one-goal lead, as Vernon outshot the Smoke Eaters 23-17 through two periods.
“It’s been a while since we faced a top team and come out with two points, so it’s crucial, especially against a team like Vernon, who we’re most likely going to see in the playoffs at some time,” said Marcoux. “I knew there was a guy backdoor, I think it was Sandhu that was in front, his eyes weren’t on the net at all, they were on the guy backdoor. So I can anticipate it and I’m lucky he didn’t put it in on the rebound.”
The Smokies played solid defensive hockey in the third, and while Vernon pressed early, Marcoux came up big when he had to. Smokies forward Spencer McLean had been battling Vernon defenceman Shane Kelly all night, and finally got the better of the six-foot-five d-man when he jumped on an Andre Ghantous rebound and chipped it past the Vipers goalie for a 3-1 lead with just over five minutes to play.
“Kelly’s got some size and some strength to him,” said Keith. “But you’ve got to give Spencer credit, he stood in there, took some shots and didn’t back down and then got rewarded for it in finding the rebound.”
Vernon pulled their goalie in the final 1:45, but the Smokies weathered an initial storm until Trail’s Minnesota product, Ryan Murphy, iced it with an empty-net goal with 23 seconds remaining for the 4-1 victory.
“It’s playoff hockey,” added Keith. “They’re in the same battle that we are right now, and everyone is clawing for positioning in the standings. As you saw, it’s a 2-1 game, there wasn’t a lot of chances for and against, and goals are scored on a rebound or scramble in front, you just have to find ways to get there and we did tonight. We had a ton of traffic, and a lot of heart from the kids today.”
Vernon outshot Trail 31-28 and was 0-for-7 on the power play, while Trail went 0-for-3. Marcoux earned the game’s first star, Caton second star, and McLean third star.
On Friday, the Smokies offence came alive firing 47 shots at the Surrey goal in a 7-4 victory.
The teams were tied 3-3 after one, but Ghirardosi put the Smokies up for good, scoring 28 seconds into the middle frame, before Caton made it 5-3 at 5:32. After Surrey’s Dryden Michaud cut the lead to one, Carter Jones notched his 15th of the campaign midway through the third, and Ghirardosi completed the hat trick, scoring into an empty net for the 7-4 win. Matthew Campese scored twice and John Wesley had the other Eagles marker.
Connor Welsh and Levi Glasman netted singles, while Smoke Eater defencemen Seth Barton added three helpers and captain Troy Ring had two assists.
Trail outshot Surrey 47-22, went 2-for-4 on the power play, and were a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill.
Ghirardosi and Jones were the game’s first and second stars, while Eagles’ Campese was named third star.
With the two wins, the 28-14-4-1 Smoke Eaters keep pace in the tight Interior, three points behind Wenatchee Wild for third place, and six back of Vernon and Penticton, tied for top spot with 67 points.
The Smoke Eaters host Mainland Division teams the Langley Rivermen and the Coquitlam Express on Friday and Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.