The Trail Smoke Eaters accomplished their first playoff mission by earning a split against the Centennials in Merritt on the weekend, and are now poised for Games 3 and 4 at home.
Trail evened the Interior Division quarter-final series with a 5-2 win over the Merritt Centennials on Saturday, following a 4-2 loss in Game 1 Friday night.
“We liked our game,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “We thought we played well the first night but we kind of put the game up for grabs and in that building it’s tough. But we had the ability to respond on back-to-back nights … Our goal was to get the split, so I like things coming our way, I think our group feels good about themselves, and we’re right back to work on Tuesday.”
Playing in the tight confines of the Nicola Valley Arena, the Smokies preparation leading up to their two tilts in Merritt paid off. Trail practised in the smaller Rossland Arena to get a feel for what Games 1 and 2 would bring.
“We put in a lot of work during the week,” said Tambellini. “We worked in a small rink with different dimensions, changed our game plan for that building itself and when you deter some of their Grade A chances, some of their stuff in transition, it’s much easier to take away their big plays out there. Our guys had a good week, paid a lot of attention, and we started to see that, especially on that second night.”
Smoke Eaters defenceman Trevor Zins netted the game winner 12 minutes and six seconds into the second period as the St. Cloud commit carried the puck down the right wing then sniped a shot under the glove of Merritt goalie Austin Roden to give Trail a 3-1 lead on the way to the 5-2 victory.
The Smoke Eaters held the league’s number-2 offence to just two goals on Saturday with solid defensive play, and another strong performance from goaltender Donovan Buskey.
“Buskey has been great all the games, but the last two he’s been fantastic and given us a chance to win. You’re never going to win playoff games without good goaltending, and he’s been great for us.”
Trail opened the scoring on a Mack Byers tally 5:53 into the first period, beating Roden blocker side. Midway through the period, Byers made it 2-0 at the tail-end of a power play firing another shot past the blocker of the Cents goalie.
“Mack Byers has found a way to influence games all year, whether he’s scoring or just working, he brings a compete level every night that is absolutely relentless … and he’s done a fantastic job of really setting a tone for this series.”
Centennials forward Matthew Kopperud scored two minutes later and Ryan Van Unen made it a one-goal game at 1:56 of the third period. But Trail refused to yield, as Kent Johnson made a dazzling deke on Roden on a breakaway to make it 4-2 at 3:06, and Hayden Rowan converted a setup from Tyler Ghirardosi for the 5-2 final.
Trail’s run in last year’s playoff provided many of its veterans with valuable experience and Tambellini is confident it will give the Smoke Eaters an extra edge heading into Games 3 and 4 in Trail.
“We’re not going to waver. We’re going to stick to our structure, and we believe our team is built for this, is bigger, more physical, and we can execute at a higher level. Our biggest thing is we have experience, we have double the experience that group has in the playoffs. It’s learning how to win, and handling the emotions of a playoff series is so important, and our best players have that, and that’s going to be really crucial going forward.”
Buskey stopped 32 0f 34 shots, while Roden made 26 saves for the Centennials. Trail went 2-for-3 on the power play and were 3-for-4 on the penalty kill.
Byers earned the game’s first star, Zins was second star, and Buskey was the third star.
Game 3 of the Smoke Eaters-Centennials series goes Tuesday at the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m. Game 4 is on Wednesday.