Three-games-in-three-day road grinds are never easy, but the Trail Smoke Eaters couldn’t have asked for better results, earning six points on their road swing to Vancouver Island on the weekend.
Coming off a 7-5 win over Wenatchee at home last Wednesday, the Smokies opened their road trip on Friday with a thrilling 4-3 double-overtime victory over the Nanaimo Clippers, before beating the Cowichan Valley Capitals 7-4 on Saturday. But the Smokies saved the best for last, as Montrose native Spencer McLean tallied a hat trick in a barn-burning 4-3 overtime win over the Victoria Grizzlies on Sunday.
“It was a great weekend,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Cam Keith. “You can’t really say anything negative about our group, playing a 4-in-5, it doesn’t matter who your opponents are. That many games with travel and everything else, just a great effort from not just our top guys, but everyone contributed at the right times.”
In Sunday’s matinee, McLean jumped on a turnover in the Grizzlies zone and buried the OT winner top corner on Victoria goalie Zachary Rose with nine seconds to play in the first OT period for the Smokies seventh straight victory.
“It was a 2-on-1 in front of the net and Troy (Ring) tried to feather it to me from the blue line but it never made it,” said McLean. “The other team turned it over and it popped out to me right in the slot, and I just turned and fired and lucky enough it went in.”
The hat trick was the first of the third-year Smokie veteran’s BCHL career, and his seventh goal and 12th point of the season.
“I never got a hat trick before so it’s pretty cool, but the biggest thing was getting those two points in the last game and just grinding those out,” said McLean. “Four games in five nights – eight points – I don’t know if that’s ever been done in Smoke Eaters history.”
For Keith, McLean’s hat trick was a welcomed reward for a player who works hard every game and contributes at both ends of the ice.
“He’s a kid that doesn’t get rewarded with points all the time, but he’s kind of the unsung hero of our team. He does all the things right, all the time … He’s always the hardest working kid, and that’s what makes him successful so it was really nice to see him get rewarded for all that he does.”
Victoria’s T.J. Friedmann opened the scoring at 16:53 of the first period, but McLean tied it on a setup from Jeremy Lucchini with less than a minute to play in the first period.
The Grizzlies jumped out to a 3-1 lead on goals from Justin Michaelian and Drayson Pears, but Trail fought back with McLean scoring his second on a pretty passing play with Braedon Tuck and Andre Ghantous. Affiliate player Bryce Anderson netted his second goal on the weekend to tie it with 42 seconds to play in the middle frame.
A frantic back-and-forth pace highlighted the third period, with Trail goalie Brandon Wells and his counterpart, Rose, standing tall time and again, as Trail outshot Victoria 14-10. Ghantous nearly won it for Trail late in the period but his quick shot rang off the post, and Wells came up big in the waning seconds with a glove save on an odd-man rush to force extra time.
“We took over in the third period, and it’s a testament to the guys and their conditioning and work ethic they put in this year,” said Keith. “We were down 3-1 early. And I think it’s the first game this year where we really have come back and taken over a game … and not only comeback but keep pressing against a really good team.”
The drama continued into the first 4-on-4 OT, with both teams trading shots until McLean decided it in the final seconds.
Trail outshot Victoria 42-30 and went 1-for-4 on the power play and were perfect on the penalty kill in five Grizzly chances.
“Victoria was just a huge game because 3-in-3 nights, and they didn’t play Saturday, and that was our best game of the weekend.”
Inexplicably, McLean’s hat trick and OT winner wasn’t enough to earn first star; that honour went to Pears of Victoria. McLean was named second star and Rose the game’s third star.
In Saturday’s match against Cowichan Valley, Braedon Tuck led the way, scoring twice, while Trail defenceman Jake Yuris pitched in with two helpers for the Smoke Eaters 7-4 victory.
Seth Barton put Trail up 1-0 early, and goals from Tuck and Ghantous gave the Smokies a 3-1 first period lead. Tuck notched his second of the game at 8:40 of the second, but Cowichan’s Ty Pochipinski replied two minutes later. Glasman scored his 10th of the season and the Capitals Ethan Scardina completed the scoring in the middle frame to put Trail up 5-3. The Caps drew within one less than two minutes into the third on a goal by Troy MacTavish, but goals from Kale Howarth and Ross Armour iced it for the Smoke Eaters.
Trail outshot the Capitals 35-24 with Tuck earning first star, Pochipinski second star and Howarth third star.
In Friday’s game, Trail won another overtime thriller with a 4-3 win over Nanaimo. The Clippers went up 1-0 4:12 into the first period, but goals from Anderson, Tyler Ghirardosi, and Blaine Caton gave the Smoke Eaters a 3-1 lead heading into the third period. However, the Clippers rallied to tie it on goals from Maxwell Crozier and Parker Colley to force overtime.
In the second OT period, Howarth set up Trail defenceman Trevor Zins for his first goal as a Smoke Eater and the 4-3 victory.
Wells stopped 39 shots in the Smoke Eater goal, while Taz Burnam blocked 25 for Nanaimo. Caton was named the game’s first star, Nanaimo’s Jamie Collins second star, and Tuck third star with two assists.
Trail’s seventh straight win launches the 16-4-1-0 Smokies into sole possession of first place in the BCHL with 33 points, two points up on the Vipers. Despite their success, Trail has little room for error in the the highly competitive Interior Division.
“We’re trying not to look at the standings too much,” said Keith. “We’re trying to get better as a team, as a group, and we know that Vernon has a very, very, strong team as we saw when they played against us and it’s going to be a test moving forward for us. But we’ve also proved that we can play with Penticton, Wenatchee and West K, so we’re happy where we’re at, but we also know we need to continue to get better, we can’t let up. It’s a very tough division.”
The Smoke Eaters are at home for their next three games starting Friday against Prince George at the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m. and on Sunday versus Salmon Arm at 3 p.m.
Smoke Signals: The impressive play of 16-year-old Whitehorse product, Bryce Anderson, on the weekend may be a glimpse into the Smokies future. The talented centreman plays in the CSSHL for the Yale Hockey Academy, and played under Smokies assistant coach Jesse Leung when he coached the Valley West Hawks of the BC Major Midget League last season. Anderson has 24 points in just 14 games this season for Yale.