Trail Smoke Eaters forward Kent Johnson scored in a shootout to lift the hometown Smokies to a 3-2 victory over the Merritt Centennials on Saturday at the Cominco Arena.
The 16-year-old forward went forehand backhand, then lifted the puck over the glove of Cents goalie Austin Roden, while Trail goalie Adam Marcoux stymied Merritt’s three shooters to give Trail the win and an important two points in the BCHL’s Interior Division, after falling to the Vernon Vipers 6-3 on Friday.
“It’s that time of year where games are extremely tight, and we’ve probably been in more close games than any other team this year,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “We faced a good Vernon team on the first night, and they found a way to have a great third period. But our guys really responded against one of the best teams in our league the next night and found a way to pull out a big two points.”
The game against the Centennials posed a compelling preview of what could be an opening round Interior Division playoff for the Smokies, and, the victory, a confidence booster for a team heading into the final seven games of the season.
“We’re going to have to play three great teams to get out of the division and win,” said Tambellini. “Who we get, it really doesn’t matter. It’s really important for our group to start putting some doubt in all the teams that we play, that we are not an easy team to face in the first round.”
The goal was Johnson’s 17th of the season and 38th point, while Marcoux blocked 32-of-34 shots in the game.
All the scoring came in the opening frame, with Merritt getting on the board first when Brendan Schneider poked in a rebound on the left post just five minutes into the match.
Trail responded when Carter Jones worked his way into the slot and wired a quick shot over the blocker of Roden at 11:58 to tie the match at one. Spencer McLean then gave the Smokies the lead just 21 seconds later when he gathered the puck in the left face-off circle and also beat Roden on the blocker side.
With just five minutes to play in the first period, a Smoke Eaters turnover allowed Brett Roloson to jump on the puck and fire it past Marcoux to end the scoring in regulation.
The teams went back-and-forth in the final two stanzas, each getting opportunities but failing to capitalize.
In the overtime period, the teams played tentatively through the first half, but opened it up in the final two minutes with Trail getting four chances on net to Merritt’s two.
Johnson’s shootout winner keeps the Smokies five points back of Salmon Arm and Vernon for seventh place in the Interior Division standings and a 19-22-7-3 record. The Silverbacks and Vipers are going to be tough to catch as they won both their respective games on the weekend with Salmon Arm taking two from the West Kelowna Warriors and Vernon beating Trail and the Wenatchee Wild.
“You look at our season and Vernon’s season, both our teams have lost 10 overtime games,” said Tambellini. “If you win even half those games, it puts us in fourth spot … Again it’s more about gaining momentum so when it starts, our team feels really good about ourselves.”
The Cents outshot Trail 32-29, with the Smokies going 0-for-3 on the power play and 2-for-2 on the PK. Marcoux was the game’s first star, Roloson from Merritt the second star, and the Smokies Mack Byers third star.
Marcoux, a Calgary native, is 2-and-1 in his last three starts with an improved 2.66 GAA and a .906 save percentage. The Trail goalie has been instrumental in the team’s success, and while Donovan Buskey has just one win in his three starts since joining the team at the trade deadline, he has played well and afforded the 20-year-old starter Marcoux some much needed rest heading down the stretch.
“I think just taking the workload off Adam, he’s leading the league in minutes played and carried us through the heaviest part of our schedule, so we wanted to give him some support back there where he didn’t have to feel like he was going to play every single night.”
On Friday, Buskey got his first the start at the Cominco Arena and played well in front of the home crowd as the Smoke Eaters battled hard through two, but the Vernon Vipers erupted for five goals in the third period to defeat the Smoke Eaters 6-3.
Johnson and Byers gave Trail a 2-1 lead and Buskey stopped 19-of-20 shots through two periods. However, Vernon rallied. Josh Latta tied it and Land Zablocki gave the Vipers a 3-2 lead, before Byers evened it with his second of the game midway through the third.
The ice tilted in Vernon’s favour and goals from Jesse Lansdell and Latta made it 5-3, finished off with an empty netter from Connor Marritt for the 6-3 final.
Buskey stopped 25 shots in the loss, while Bradley Cooper stopped 28 pucks in the Vipers’ net.
“He (Buskey) has actually played outstanding when he’s been in there,” added Tambellini. “I’m really disappointed with our group in front of him every time he’s played. Our coverage in front of him has been so poor … We’re very happy he’s with us going forward, we’re more concerned about our coverage when he’s in the net than his abilities.”
Trail’s home-stand continues this weekend as the Smokies host a pair of games against the Silverbacks on Friday and Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m.