The Trail Smoke Eaters held the Penticton Vees big guns at bay on Wednesday, but secondary scoring proved the difference in a Vees 4-1 victory at the Cominco Arena.
Forward Jared Nash netted the winning goal, his 11th of the season and second in 12 games, to give the Vees their league-leading 34th win of the season.
“It was one of those nights where we didn’t have our legs, and we didn’t play like us until the third period,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Jessie Leung. “Internally, we put some pressure on ourselves on how we want to finish and how we play, but at the end of the day … we’re certainly not afraid of Penticton. It’s just one of those nights where nothing seemed to go right, and truly go in our favour – bounces wise.”
Nash netted the game-winner when he stripped a bouncing puck from the Trail defenceman at the Smoke Eater blue line, walked in all alone on Trail goalie Adam Marcoux, and finished with a slick deke for a 2-0 Vees lead 1:44 into the middle frame.
The Smoke Eaters were without dynamic forward Kale Howarth, who is serving a three-game suspension for his third blow-to-the-head infraction. The Vees exploited his absence, controlling the play and shutting down Trail’s normally potent offence with speed, solid defence, and a lightning quick transition that often caught the Smoke Eaters on the back of their heels.
The Vees Jackson Keane opened the scoring with just 6.7 seconds left in the first. Marcoux made a pad save off Lukas Sillinger, but the rebound bounced to a charging Keane who guided it in with his skate to give the Vees a 1-0 lead and cap off a first period in which the Vees outshot the Smokies 20-6.
“That’s a hallmark of Penticton’s game is their transition, and the shot clock was certainly in their favour, but if you wipe out the first period, the shots in the second and third were pretty even, and in all honesty, the chances for and against we’re pretty even as well.”
After Nash put the Vees up 2-0, Trail pushed back in the second and had a number of good scoring opportunities, but misfires and missed nets kept the Smokies off the board.
Penticton’s Jack Barnes scored his first goal in 23 games to make it 3-0 two minutes into the third period. Jonny Tychonick carried the puck across the blue line and looked to have lost it to the Trail defender but regained the handle and sent it to Barnes in the slot, where the Penticton native wired it into the open side.
The Smokies responded, and came close on a couple chances including a rocket from the circle by Seth Barton that clanged off the post to keep the Smokies off the board. Trail finally broke through on the power play, when Braeden Tuck deflected a low shot from defenceman Connor Welsh past Nolan Hildebrand at 14:43 to cut the lead to 3-1.
“If that (Barton shot) goes in, it’s a different game,” said Leung. “It was just one of those nights that the bounces didn’t go our way. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the legs or the jump to start the game that we needed to to have success.”
Trail continued to press, but the six-foot-two Hildebrand came up big in the Vees crease and Wyatt Sloboshan scored his fourth of the campaign into an empty Trail net with 1:56 to play for the 4-1 victory.
The Vees outshot Trail 41-27 and went 1-for-3 on the power play, while the Smokies were 1-for-5. Nash received the game’s first star, Barnes was second star, and Trail’s Marcoux was the third star.
With Trail defenceman Ethan Martini in the stands nursing an injury, the Smokies inserted Jimmy Darby of the Major Midget Valley West Hawks into the lineup and the 16-year-old defenceman was impressive in his second game as a Trail AP.
“He acquitted himself well,” said Leung, the former coach of the Hawks. “It’s never easy for a 16-year-old to step in and play in our league, particularly against a good team like Penticton. I thought he was great, played physically, and got better as the game went on – we’re excited about his development.”
Like the Vees, Salmon Arm has been on fire this past month, and will return to Trail to continue their series tilt on Saturday. The Silverbacks defeated the Coquitlam Express 5-2 on Wednesday. They’ve won eight of their last nine games and trail the fifth-place West Kelowna Warriors by just two points in the Interior Division.
“There’s not a single sub-par team that we’ve left to play. They’re all divisional games, and everybody in our division is deadly. So we’re certainly expecting a good push, we’re expecting a different (Salmon Arm) team than we’ve seen all year, but we’re up for the challenge.”
The Smoke Eaters have yet to lose to the Silverbacks and lead the series 4-0, although the last time the teams met was Nov. 18 in a 4-3 Trail victory. The Smoke Eaters final home game of the season also goes against the ‘Backs on Feb. 23, and may very well be a preview of the first round playoff series between the Interior Division’s fourth and fifth seeds.
Trail travels to Penticton on Friday, then returns home on Saturday for a match against the Silverbacks with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.