A sweep by the Vipers wasn’t the way Trail Smoke Eaters captain Connor Brown-Maloski wanted to wind up his junior career, so the game’s first star set up the opening goal 70 seconds in and scored the winner just over two minutes later to lift the Smokies to a 5-2 victory over the Vernon Vipers in Game 4 of the best-of-seven BCHL Interior Division semifinal.
“Whenever the season’s on the line, I mean we’ve been a group for seven months now, and you never want to end on that note,” said Brown-Maloski. “So I think everyone just dug down a bit more and realized how serious the situation was and everyone just put in a good effort, and we got the result we wanted.”
Down 3-0 in the series, the Smokies flew out of the gate in the must-win match scoring four first-period goals in response to the Vipers’ 7-1 drubbing of the Smokies the previous night.
“Every start needs a lucky bounce,” said Trail coach and GM Cam Keith. “We came out with the idea that we needed that first goal, and we were fortunate to get a bounce early on that (Luke) Santerno capitalized and we kind of rolled from there. We definitely didn’t outplay Vernon tonight, but we capitalized on the early opportunities and we’re able to hang on.”
Brown-Maloski scored the winner 3:34 into the opening frame, firing a quick shot from the hashmark to give the Smokies a 3-0 lead and chase Darion Hanson from the Vipers net.
“Jer (Lucchini) went down to Ross (Armour) and Ross threw it cross-ice to me and I was looking for a shot-pass and somehow it just found it’s way into the back of the net,” said Brown-Maloski.
The win keeps the Smokies playoffs hopes alive, as the series shifts back to Vernon for Game 5 on Thursday.
The Smokies scored 1:10 into the period, when Brown-Maloski sent a backdoor pass to Luke Santerno who banged his sixth post-season goal past starter Hanson for an early 1-0 lead.
Affiliate player Brady Berger picked up his first tally as a Smoke Eater redirecting a Mitch Barker shot by Hanson 1:47 into the period. After CBM made it 3-0, the six-foot-four Berger notched his second of the game, when Troy Ring sent a pass to the Grand Forks Border Bruin AP in front and he wired it by Ty Taylor for a 4-0 Smokies lead.
“Brady Berger played physical, in-your-face style of game, and for a 17-year-old he showed a lot of grit, and wasn’t scared of a more older, physical Vernon group,” said Keith, adding that Berger and Korbyn Chabot injected a much-needed spark from the fourth line.
The Smokies started Zach Dyment in net and the veteran goalie was stellar in a 40-save performance, particularly in the second period when the Vipers outshot the Smokies 16-3. Dyment came on in relief of Linden Marshall in the first period of Game 3 when Marshall was pulled after Vernon jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Marshall had started eight straight playoff games prior to Game 4.
“For Zach, he’d been playing really well in practice, and I was waiting for an opportunity to play him, and there was no better opportunity than now,” said Keith. “Linden was kind of struggling early on, and no better way than to start a 20-year-old goalie, to rally the guys around it, sometimes that’s what you need to spark the other guys.”
Dyment was especially good midway through the second with the Smokies shorthanded, Dyment stopped Jandric on the doorstep and then slid over to rob Brett Stapley at the side of the net.
However, the Vipers finally got on the board at 16:29, when Jimmy Lambert tipped a Steven Jandric shot by Dyment to make it 4-1.
After the Smoke Eaters Tyson Slater was sent off for holding, the Smokies penalty kill unit of Armour and Brown-Maloski combined for a glorious chance as Armour whirled in the Vipers corner eluding two defenceman and backhanded a no-look pass to CBM whose one timer was kicked out by a sprawling Taylor. The Vipers regrouped and went the other way, and Lambert hit Jandric flying down the right side and his shot snuck through Dyment’s arm to cut the lead to 4-2 at 18:24.
Things got heated in the second, as the Smokies forward Howarth and Vipers’s six-foot-five defenceman Shane Kelly mixed it up and both were given double-minors for slashing and roughing.
“To be honest, I think us and Trail are built the same way,” said Vipers coach Mark Ferner. “To give yourself a chance to win, you need to have good goaltending, good defence, and good luck … we have some experienced, bigger, older maybe if you want to use the word meaner-type players on the backend and some really good puck movers too, and our forward group play with some energy.
“This isn’t over, we understand that,” added Ferner. “We go into every series thinking it’s a seven-game series … We’re still looking at this as it’s going to be a long series, and that’s just the respect we have for this (the Smokies) program.”
The teams went into the second intermission with Vernon holding a 25-11 edge in shots and trailing 4-2, but a minute remained on a Smokies power play after Hunter Zandee was tagged for boarding at 19:03. Trail worked the puck in the Vipers zone and Lucchini sent it to Carter Cochrane at the point who found Armour in the slot, and the Rossland native wired it by Taylor for a 5-2 Smoke Eater lead.
The Vipers had their chances in the third period but Dyment was huge stopping 17 shots, including a breakaway save off Niko Karamanis and withstood a flurry late in the period as the Vipers pressed with Taylor on the bench and desperate for a goal.
“I guess we kind of got ahead of ourselves,” said Vipers captain Riley Brandt. “They’re fighting for their season, so we expected nothing less than their best effort going forward. That’s exactly what they did, they came out right off the hop and we came out flat, and we left our goalie to hang out to dry and it was over in the first period.”
The Smoke Eaters repelled a concerted Vernon attack, skating to a well-earned Game 4 victory following a deflating loss the night before. The win for 20-year-olds like Santerno, Cochrane, Barker, Dyment, and Brown-Maloski was especially satisfying.
“I definitely want to go out on my own terms,” said Brown-Maloski. “You never want to lose the last game of the season, so I’m going to do everything I possibly can to do that. We have three games in a row we have to win, and I’m pretty confident in the group that we have that we’re going to be able to do that.”
Vernon outshot Trail 42-18 and went 1-for-5 on the power play, while Trail scored on 2-of-3 opportunities. Brown-Maloski received first star honours, with Jandric earning second star, and Berger the third star.
Game 5 goes tonight at Kal Tire Place in Vernon and will return to Trail for Game 6 on Friday night with the puck drop at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.