The Trail Smoke Eaters broke out of an early season slump in a big way this weekend.
Smokies forward Kent Johnson also got on track picking up eight points in two games as Trail rolled over Victoria Cougars 6-2 on Sunday for their first home win, after beating the West Kelowna Warriors 5-1 on Friday. The points and wins are a welcome result after dropping their first six games, the most recent a 3-1 loss to the Wenatchee Wild on Friday.
“It feels good,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “We trust our group, we knew there was going to be an adjustment losing players right away. Our schedule wasn’t great but we’re not going to make excuses for our group. We knew we had a lot more, and sometimes the group has to learn how to work together and we got pushed into a corner, and they came out the right way.”
Johnson counted five assists against West Kelowna, and scored twice and added an assist for a three-point game Sunday. Prior to the weekend games, the 16-year-old Port Moody native registered just three points in six games, as Trail struggled to execute despite outshooting opposing teams. The recent breakout games have vaulted Johnson into second place in BCHL scoring with three goals and 11 points thanks to new found chemistry with linemates Liam Freeborn and Michael Colella and a much improved power play.
“Again new linemates, new people to work with, some power-play adjustments and sometimes it doesn’t happen on day one,” said Tambellini. “They’ve figured it out, they’re smart players, they’re using their linemates, and I really like his game in the last four games. He’s an extremely talented guy and now he’s rolling.”
Trail forward Max Kryski scored the game winner just 4:58 into the first period. Kryski broke hard to the net and fired in a centering pass from Tyler Ghirardosi for a 3-0 Smokies lead.
The Smoke Eaters faced a tough schedule in the first three weeks of the hockey season, playing Penticton, Salmon Arm, Powell River, and Wenatchee. Combined, the teams are 21-2-0-1 and are at the top of their respective division standings.
Trail came out flying in the first period on Sunday with Owen Ozar breaking in on a 2-on-1 with Connor Sweeney and wiring a shot top shelf for a 1-0 lead.
Johnson scored his first of the game, as he took a feed from Diarmad Dimurro at the right circle, faked a shot, froze the goalie, then lifted a backhand into the open net just four minutes in. Less than a minute later, Kryski buried the winner.
Grizzlies defenceman Nico Summerville notched his first of the season with a shot from the point that found its way through traffic and past Smokies goalie Donovan Buskey with 4:02 left in the period.
But the Smokies weren’t done as Dimurro sent Braden Costello in on a breakaway, and the University of North Dakota commit buried his first of the campaign at 1:22.
The Grizzlies made a goaltending change to start the second bringing in Joe Howe for rookie goalie Blake Wood.
Trail kept coming in the second and smartly extended a delayed penalty, allowing defenceman Powell Connor to sneak through the back door and one-time a setup from Johnson past Wood to make it 5-1 at 12:54. Less than two minutes later, Johnson took a pass from Colello, and sniped a shot top shelf.
Trail held the Grizzlies to just three shots in the second period, while firing 13 at the Victoria net.
Victoria scored early in the third, but the Smoke Eaters played solid defensively the rest of the way for the victory.
Trail outshot Victoria 29-15. Johnson earned the game’s first star, with Dimurro and Ozar getting the second and third star nods.
On Friday, the Smoke Eaters goalie Logan Terness stopped 33 shots in a 5-1 victory over the West Kelowna Warriors.
Dimurro scored twice and added two assists, while Ghirardosi tallied two and Ozar added a single as the Smokies went 4-for-6 on the power play. Johnson assisted on every goal.
Trail fired 34 shots at the West Kelowna net and were also a perfect 4-for-4 on the penalty kill.
The wins puts the 2-5-0-1 Smokies in fifth place in the Interior Division, as they get set to travel to Prince George on Saturday to take on the 2-3-2-0 Spruce Kings, a team that has also struggled early in the season.
“Do we like where our record stands? no, but you look around the league there’s going to be a big amount of correction,” added Tambellini. “There’s a lot of teams that are patting themselves on the back and they’re ahead of where they’re going to be, and a couple of other teams didn’t start the way they want. We’re worried about where we’re going to be 40 games into the year going into the playoffs and we’re building to the end.”