The Trail Smoke Eaters have been plagued by goaltending injuries and it’s beginning to take its toll.
The Smoke Eaters lost a pair of road games to Merritt and West Kelowna on the weekend, bringing their winless streak to eight games.
“All three of our carded goalies that have junior experience, two look to be long term and we’re hoping (Evan) Fradette is back in the next week or two, but until then we are using our affiliate goaltenders the last three games,” explained Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle.
Newly acquired goalie Mason Dunsford is out for personal reasons following a strong performance in a 5-4 overtime loss to Penticton on Feb. 12, while starter Evan Fradette is day-to-day after going through concussion protocol, and Cole Tisdale remains on the IR for the long term.
Trail scrambled to fill the crease on the weekend, bringing up AP goaltenders Owen Albers from the Beaver Valley Nitehawks and Ethan Shebansky of the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
The Smoke Eaters suffered a 5-3 loss to the Merritt Centennials on Saturday, and an 8-4 setback to the West Kelowna Warriors Sunday.
Merritt’s victory over Trail is just its second win of the season, and comes despite being outshot 51-25 by the Smoke Eaters.
On Sunday, Trail held a 44-42 edge in shots against the Warriors but couldn’t make up a 6-1 differential after two periods.
“In this tough stretch, we’ve been in the last seven games, we’ve outshot the teams in six-out-of-seven games,” said Fragle. “We have definitely generated enough chances to be in those games.
“I guess on the positive side of things, and I know there’s not a lot of positives when you’re not winning games, but to be truthful, we’ve played better in some of these games that we lost than in some of the games we won.”
On Sunday, Smoke Eaters forward Nicholas Remissong scored 4:05 into the first period to give Trail a 1-0 lead. However, West Kelowna tied it just 23 seconds later and added two more before the period was out for a 3-1 lead.
The Warriors added three more in the second to make it 6-1 in an end-to-end battle that saw Trail fire 18 shots on net and generate quality chances without a result. The Smoke Eaters battled back in the third with goals from Teddy Lagerback, Christian Lowe, and Brady Hunter but the Warriors skated away with the 8-4 win.
Trail’s special teams have also struggled of late. The Smoke Eaters went 0-for-10 on the power play against the Warriors and Merritt, while the Cents scored twice on seven chances and the Warriors went 1-for-5.
“Our power play and our penalty kill have not been great over the last six or seven games,” said Fragle. “Our special teams need to improve. Our power play was keeping us in games, and now it’s quite the opposite, we’re getting our chances but not finishing.”
In Merritt on Saturday, Trail battled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie it on goals from Zach Michaelis and Josh Schenk. Yet, Merritt answered making it 4-2 at the end of the second period with Trail holding a 33-19 edge in shots on goal.
The Cents’ Tristan Allen made it 5-2 at 11:19 and Smoke Eaters defenceman Joel Barton scored a late marker for the 5-3 final.
Merritt also relied on an Affiliate Player in net in Colton Phillips-Watts, goalie for the Kamloops Storm of the KIJHL, who made 48 saves versus Trail.
The Smoke Eaters have also been without captain Coalson Wolford and forward Ridge Dawson, two players that bring energy and excitement to the orange and black.
Wolford has been out with concussion and is day-to-day, while Dawson who suffered a fracture will likely be a couple more weeks.
Fragle is hopeful that Fradette is back on the ice this week, and available for the weekend games versus Vernon and Wenatchee.
“I’m optimistic he can play this weekend, which will be huge for us. But again, it’s one of these injuries that’s day-by-day, and we can’t expect to over-play him either, because we have 12 games in 24 days in March. We need another goalie to come in and take some minutes as well, we can’t just throw him right back into the fire.”
The 20-year-old St. Albert native last played on Feb. 5, appearing in 30 games to start the season, with a 14-14 record.
Albers will return to the Nitehawks who started their first round of the Neil Murdoch Division championship on Tuesday against the Creston Valley Thunder Cats.
The Grand Forks Border Bruins did not make the KIJHL playoffs, so the Smoke Eaters have added Shebansky to the line up.
The 16-21-2-1 Smoke Eaters are currently in seventh place in the Interior Conference and have gone winless in February, their last victory coming on Jan. 28 in an 8-0 rout over the Centennials.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time, trying to get healthy here,” said Fragle. “I know there’s not much to draw from other than we are playing better, we’re just not getting the results. There is no other way to sugarcoat that.”
Trail will look to make up some ground on Vernon when they host the Vipers on Friday at 7 p.m. and Wenatchee Wild on Sunday with the puck drop at 3 p.m.