An undermanned Trail Smoke Eaters team showed that character can win hockey games in a 6-3 victory over the Prince George Spruce Kings on Saturday at the Trail Memorial Centre.
The Smoke Eaters were handicapped offensively by the injury bug, but a second period surge lifted Trail to victory, following a tough 4-1 loss to the Vernon Vipers on Friday.
“We had a lot of guys step up,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “Going into the game, four of our top nine forwards were out of the line up. We only dressed 10, so we were shorthanded but we had a number of guys step up and play extra minutes.”
Smoke Eaters forward Adam Marshall scored the game winner to make it 4-1 and complete a three goal outburst to start the second period. Marshall took a pass from Ethan Mann, made a slick move in front, then slipped it through the legs of the Spruce Kings goalie for his 10th of the season.
The win keeps the 16-18-2-3 Smoke Eaters in reach of the fourth place Salmon Arm Silverbacks and Spruce Kings who each have 43 points and a six-point lead on Trail, currently in eighth place in the Kootenay Conference.
Prince George took a 1-0 lead on a top corner snipe from Ty Gagno at 7:16. But just over a minute later, Ethan Mann redirected a volley from Marshall in front of P.G. goalie Aidan Feddema to tie it heading into the second frame.
Mann notched his second of the night, firing in a Brady Hunter rebound for a power play goal just 49 seconds into the period.
Connor Seeley tipped in a point shot from defenceman Jordan Hendry 53 seconds later for a 3-1 lead. After Marshall made it 4-1, Hunter set up Nic Remissong in front for a 5-1 lead at 13:59.
The Spruce Kings Killian McGregor-Bennett scored a power play with 12:09 remaining to cut the lead to three.
Amran Bhabra scored 7:07 into the third, but it was a night of milestones for Smoke Eaters forward Hunter who scored with 11:44 remaining to make it 6-3. With the goal, the Merrimack commit tallied his 100th BCHL career point, in his 100th career game.
“Where he started three years ago to where he is now, I think that is a good example of player development in our group,” said Fragle. “He started at the bottom and worked his way up, and we are really proud of his development.”
Prince George outshot Trail 40-36, including 16-6 in the third period, but Smoke Eaters goalie Teagan Kendrick was solid in net. Trail went 1-for-3 on the power play and 1-for-2 on the PK.
Hunter (1G,2A) was named the game’s first star, Mann (2G, 1A) second star, and Marshall (1G,1A) third star.
The win was even more impressive because the Smoke Eaters were without Trey Fechko, Ridge Dawson, Adam Parsons, and Max Potvin to start the game, and then lost forwards Judah Makway and Mann during the match, finishing the game with just eight up front.
When asked how the Smoke Eaters can adapt to the significant number of games lost to injury, Fragle was candid.
“I don’t think you do. We have an affiliate list, we have used a number of them already. January was a tough month for us too in regards to injury, especially forwards,” added Fragle. “We’ve been dressing 11 forwards seven ‘D’, because we’ve been shorthanded.”
Prior to Christmas, the Smoke Eaters enjoyed a six game winning streak, but since returning have gone 2-7-1-1. The difference for Fragle is that prior to the break, the Smoke Eaters were capitalizing on their chances.
“We haven’t been able to finish at a key time, like the Vernon game on Friday,” said Fragle. “For example, it’s 0-0 up until almost halfway through the game, we have two or three glorious chances we don’t score on, and they come down and get one and you know when your struggling a bit, we sagged, and then it’s 2-0 after 40 minutes instead of us being up.”
Dylan Compton and Isaac Tremblay scored to give Vernon the 2-0 lead, and Lee Parks and Hank Cleaves put Vernon up 4-0 in the third.
Evan Bushy scored a power play goal for Trail with 4:41 remaining for the 4-1 final.
“We talk about finishing chances all the time,” said Fragle. “And if you look at the shot clocks in all those games we are even or ahead. We are losing the one-goal games, when we were winning the one-goal games before the break.”
Trail outshot Vernon 36-33 and went 1-for-5 on the power play and 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.
The Smoke Eaters head into a home-and-home series with the 27-10-1-1 Cranbrook Bucks, who sit in second place behind the Penticton Vees in the Kootenay Conference. The Smoke Eaters can only hope that some of their forwards are able to return.
“This year, the Bucks are right there with Pen, they are that strong of a team,” said Fragle. “For us against them, they score goals in bunches, and that is what has really hurt us. You lose a game 4-2 but you gave them three goals in a span of three minutes.
“We have to do a better job of not allowing quick goals back-to-back against them.”
The Smoke Eaters host Cranbrook on Friday, Feb. 10 with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Trail Memorial Centre, and then travel to Cranbrook Saturday for a 6 p.m. PT start.