Smoke Eaters forward Chase Stevenson drives to the net in Game 3 of the Interior Division semifinal against the Merritt Centennials. Jim Bailey photos.

Trail Smoke Eaters take series lead with win over Merritt Centennials

Trail Smoke Eaters erupt for four second period goals on way to 5-2 win over the Merritt Centennials

Trail Smoke Eaters goalie Donovan Buskey stopped 40 shots and Tyler Ghirardosi had a three-point night in a 5-2 Trail victory over the Merritt Centennials on Tuesday at the Cominco Arena.

After a scoreless first period, the Smoke Eaters erupted for four second-period goals, including the game winner from Kent Johnson with 14 minutes remaining, to ignite the Smokies to a Game 3 victory. Johnson worked a give-and-go with Chase Stevenson at center ice, then flew down the wing, broke around the Merritt defenceman and roofed a shot over the glove of Cents’ goalie Austin Roden for a 3-0 Trail lead.

“They (Merritt) put a real press on in the first 10 minutes, but we got through it and that’s the most important part,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Donovan Buskey made some outstanding saves, really kept the game 0-0, then we found a way to break it open not just get one but get four, and when you put that many up, it’s tough to come back on.”

Related read: Trail Smoke Eaters win big in Merritt, even series

With the victory, the Smokies take a 2-1 series lead in the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal.

The Centennials took the play to the Smokies early in the first period, and had the better chances despite some push back from the Smoke Eaters. Buskey made a great pad save off Christian Sabin on a rebound midway through the period, then with Matthew Kopperud looking at an open net, the Smokies goalie calmly plucked a sure goal out of the air to keep the game scoreless in the first, as Merritt outshot Trail 13-10.

Trail picked up their pace in the second and opened the scoring when Ghirardosi set up Mack Byers at the top of the crease. Roden stopped Byers on the door step, but Spencer McLean lifted the rebound into the open side for a 1-0 Trail lead just 2:11 into the middle frame.

Two minutes later, Carter Jones gathered his own blocked shot at the hash marks and fired it past the glove of Roden to make it 2-0. After Johnson’s tally chased Roden from the net, the Port Moody native returned the favour setting up Stevenson in the slot at the 8:35 mark for a 4-0 lead on backup goalie Jackson Glassford.

Cents leading scorer Bradley Cocca scored his first of the series, getting Merritt on the board when he forced a turnover at the Merritt blue line and walked in all alone on Buskey, beating him five-hole for a shorthanded goal at 7:24.

The Centennials added one more 1:54 into the third period on a tally from Payton Matsui. But Trail played solid defensively and Buskey shut the door, making several large saves including robbing Nick Granowicz all alone at the left post, with the pad then the glove, in the final two minutes of the third period for the win.

“They are a good team,” said Tambellini. “They scored lots of goals this year and they found a way to get two on two good plays, and our guys were down. Was it as pretty as we wanted it, probably not, but finding a way to get through it, our guys did a good job of it.”

Trail held the league’s second most potent offence to just two goals for the second straight game, with their top four point-getters managing just one goal.

Related read: Trail Smoke Eaters ready to roll into playoffs

“We did a great job (defensively),” said Buskey. “We’re learning more about this team, and every time we play we get to know them a bit better. We did a great job against this team, trying to take away their ‘A’ scoring chances, keeping things slow, and just playing hard in front of the net, and making them pay the price, we’re doing a good job of that.”

Montrose native, Ghirardosi, inserted the dagger, scoring his second of the series into an empty net with just 15 seconds on the clock.

Buskey has stopped 72 of 76 shots fired his way in the two Trail wins and is feeling more and more comfortable in the Smokies’ crease since joining the team. “Any goalie that says they don’t like shots, that’s why you play,” said Buskey, who was named Fortis Energy Player of the Game. “So it’s nice to feel the puck and get into the rhythm as best you can.”

Merritt outshot Trail 42-27 and both teams went 0-for-1 on the power play.

Ghirardosi earned the game’s first star, Johnson second star, and Stevenson third star.

Game 4 goes Wednesday night at the Cominco Arena with the puck drop at 7 p.m.

Game 5 is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. at the Nicola Valley Arena, and Game 6, if necessary, back in Trail at 7 p.m.

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Trail Smoke Eaters goalie Donovan Buskey came up huge on numerous occasions to backstop the home team to a 5-2 victory over the Merritt Centennials.

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