The Trail Smoke Eaters battled back after a rough start, but couldn’t complete the comeback in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Vernon Vipers on Wednesday at the Cominco Arena.
Vipers forward Mitch Andres sniped a shot over the glove of Trail Smoke Eaters goalie Adam Marcoux to give the Snakes a 3-2 overtime victory 64 seconds into the 3-on-3 OT for Vernon’s first win in extra time in 10 tries.
“I like the fact that we were able to comeback,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “But I was so disappointed with our start. We’d talked about the importance of a good start against that team, playing a physical style, and we’re not impressed with the lack of physicality on a consistent basis.”
Both the Vipers and the Smoke Eaters were on three-game losing streaks coming into Wednesday’s game and most expected an intense and heated match up. However, the game was an uncharacteristically tame affair, with only three minor penalties called throughout the match.
“That (physicality) has to be a staple on this team, and how our city expects the team to play and that’s what we’re asking from our guys,” said Tambellini. “And for us to come out with that lack of physicality is going to make for some changes in our group.”
The Vipers jumped out to an early lead when Matt Kowalski skated down the right wing, chipped the puck to Elan Bar Lev Wise, and the Vipers forward snapped it past the blocker of Marcoux just 1:40 into the first period.
Just over six minutes later, Teddy Wooding took a pass down low from Landon Fuller, and from a sharp angle fired it by the Smoke Eater goalie for a 2-0 Vipers lead.
The Vipers were severely shorthanded coming into the match, with Alex Swetlikoff and Jack Judson playing for Team West at the World Junior A Hockey Challenge in Bonnyville, Alta. and five more sidelined with injury. The Vipers kept the game simple, played tight defensively, allowing the Smokies few chances, and when they did break through goalie Bradley Cooper made the stops.
“It’s never easy coming here,” said Vipers coach and GM Mark Ferner. “It’s a good hockey team we’re playing and with the number of bodies being out, we just asked for an effort. We were fortunate, we got off to a little bit better start, a couple goals, and a little cushion, but you know they’re going to come back.”
Smokies defenceman Jimmy Darby tallied his first of the season slapping a knuckle ball from the point that eluded Cooper and cut the lead to 2-1 at 18:37 of the second period, with assists to Max Kryski and AP Michael Hagen.
Chase Stevenson notched his 13th of the season at 12:15 of the third period, one-timing a pass from Braden Tuck, and, after the initial shot was blocked, he scooped up the rebound and wristed it over the blocker of Cooper to tie the game at 2-2.
The teams traded chances in the final minutes but neither could capitalize. The loss brings the Smokies overtime record to 1-7, while the positive outcome for the Vipers gives the sixth place team in the Interior a 1-9 record in extra periods this season.
“Six losses, three shootouts, and now we got one so hopefully the snide is off our backs,” said Ferner. “It’s unfortunate for the fans too. Yes we had a number of guys out but so did Trail and maybe you’re not getting the best product when you have so many bodies out, but you still have to play the game, and fortunately we came out on the right end of it.”
The Smoke Eaters are still without top defencemen Kyle Chernenkoff and Powell Connor, but hope to have the two difference-makers back in the line up when they embark on a home-and-home with Penticton this weekend.
“That’s the beat of Junior hockey, if a team wants it more, whether you’re depleted or not, you can still have success,” said Tambellini. “Which is the way we’re going to look at the second half. We may not have the same point total as other teams in the league or our division but if you’re ready to out-compete people, then you have a chance to win anything in junior hockey.”
The Smoke Eaters are a young team and with the trade deadline looming on Jan. 10, Tambellini says a greater veteran presence may be required to turn things around in the second half.
“Our team desperately needs veteran character. We have three outstanding captains in Tuck, (Hayden) Rowan, and Chernenkoff, and they need some support. So we have to go find elite character, if we can, to add to our group down the stretch here, because those guys can’t carry it by themselves, and those three have done such and outstanding job that they need some help pulling guys into the battle.”
The Vipers, meanwhile, have been hit hard by WHL defections this season, with four players leaving the Snakes in favour of Major Junior. Forward Josh Prokop went to the Calgary Hitmen, goalie Max Palaga to the Everett Silvertips, Sebastian Streu to the Regina Pats, and just last week the Kelowna Rockets acquired the rights to Swetlikoff, a Kelowna native.
“We got nine guys out of the line up right now, but the thing that hurts us the most is we also lost four guys to the Western (Hockey) League,” said Ferner. “And you don’t get anything back for that. You get a card, but when they leave during the season, where do you find that player without dismantling your group? We just try to be as positive as possible.”
The Vipers outshot the Smokies 26-24 and were 0-for-1 on the power play, while Trail went 0-for-2. Andres earned first star honours, Darby second star, and Wooding third star.
Trail (12-17-5-2) sits in seventh in the Interior, two points back of the 12-12-6-3 Vipers.
The Smokies travel to Penticton to face the Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre Friday, then return to Trail and the Cominco Arena on Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m.
Smoke Signals: The Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday may add a little extra pressure for the Smoke Eaters, but fans are encouraged to bring a stuffy, socks, toques, or mitts to throw on the ice after the Smokies first goal. All donations go to a variety of organizations in need this holiday season.
Also, Re/Max is hosting its annual Christmas Toy Drive and will be accepting gifts and donations at the game. All donations go to the Salvation Army and Fruitvale Community Chest.