Smokies split home weekend; end September in third place
The Trail Smoke Eaters finished their September schedule in third place in the BCHL’s Interior Conference after splitting a pair of home games Friday and Saturday against Cowichan Valley and West Kelowna.
The Smokies (4-4-0-1), rode a pair of third-period goals, and 32 timely saves from Dustin Nikkel to a 3-2 victory over the Capitals Friday before falling 5-3 to their division rival Warriors Saturday evening at Cominco Arena.
After a near hour-long delay following an ice issue at the Trail Memorial Centre Friday, the Smokies gave their fans an early goal as Tyson Witala backhanded home his first goal in Smokies silks. The Prince George product scored the first of his four weekend points, gliding a loose puck in after Capitals netminder Robin Gusse kicked a rebound his way 7:04 into the first period.
The goaltenders took over for the next two periods, with Nikkel turning aside shot after shot on six Capitals power-plays, and Gusse denying point-blank opportunities including a Jesse Knowler breakaway midway through the opening frame.
Former Capital Travis Stephens helped turn the tide for Trail near the midway mark in period three, floating a high saucer pass across the Capitals zone to a waiting Witala, who rifled home his second goal of the game to put Trail ahead 2-1. Curtis Toneff added a third tally for the Smokies just under 2 minutes later, pouncing on a loose puck in the high slot and beat an outstretched Gusse high under the crossbar.
Cowichan Valley cut the lead to 3-2 on their seventh power-play of the night when Myles Powell’s shot banked off Mason Malkowich’s shin-pad behind Nikkel at 13:37.
The Caps pressed for an equalizer, forcing Nikkel into his best save of the night in the final minute. The Trail netminder slid to his left and flashed his glove to deny Brayden Gelsinger from just outside the crease.
Saturday, Warriors forward Jordan Masters enjoyed a three-point night as his West Kelowna side ran their winning streak to 6 games with a 5-3 triumph.
Trail again opened the scoring, putting home the first of their two power-play goals thanks to a Stephens deflection in front of the net 10:34 in, but the Warriors would even the score at 1-1 before the end of the opening frame when Jason Cotton took a hard cross-ice feed and slotted home his third goal of the year past Smoke Eaters starter Adam Todd.
West Kelowna carried the momentum through the first half of the second period and built up a two-goal lead, first on a power-play goal from Masters, then at 11:20 Detroit draftee David Pope pounced on a loose puck just outside Todd’s crease after an end-board ricochet caught the Trail goaltender out of position.
Trail’s Jake Lucchini cut the Warriors lead to 3-2 4:05 before the end of period two, roofing a backhand shot from the right-wing circle for his first goal of the new campaign.
A cagey third period turned tense at the midway mark when Todd was forced out of the game with an injury. Replacement Nikkel came under early fire, and surrendered the fourth West Kelowna goal with 8:01 left when Liam Blackburn found a loose puck at the side of the net and slid it through the Smokies’ tender’s legs.
But the home side kept pressing, first on a Brendan Lamont breakaway that West Kelowna keeper Andy Desautels parried away, then a pretty passing play that saw Trail cut the lead to 4-3, as Toneff sprung Jake Kauppila loose on the left wing, only to have the Michigan Tech commit fire a hard pass to Bryce Knapp at the doorstep for Knapp’s first home-ice goal of the season.
Trail nearly tied the game when Knowler struck iron from the right circle inside the final five minutes, but a Masters empty-net tally sealed the Smoke Eaters’ fate 1:14 from the end of regulation time.
West Kelowna and Penticton hold a share of the Interior division lead with 12 points following Saturday’s action, with the Smoke Eaters and Vernon Vipers tied for third place, three points off the pace. The Smokies return home Friday, October 4th for a contest with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (7:30 pm, Cominco Arena). For ticket information, call (250) 368-5000.