It's easy to look at the 0-6 record for Trail and focus on that. Instead at first I want to talk about tonight's game as a stand alone entity. Trail out shot the Millionaires 43-36 tonight including 31 shots through two periods. The forwards were creating traffic and chances, but Kirby Halcrow was terrific in the Quesnel goal. He didn't seem to make any spectacular saves, but he was in the right place at the right time. Reminded me a lot of Grant Rollheiser in that he made tough saves look easy. There was a reason we selected Halcrow as the first star today. His performance so far has him among the top ranked goaltenders in the BCHL.
However, it wasn't a 2-1 game. Quesnel broke it wide open with 4 goals in the second period. So what happened? How were the shots so even and actually in favour of Trail, but Quesnel came away with a four goal win? Because tonight's game was the ultimate example of what specific defensive break downs can do. 95% of tonight's game I would say the play was either even or Trail actually had a slight edge in the play. That's a positive step, but the break downs killed them. On the first goal Hertz was allowed too much space in front of the Trail goal to one time a puck home. On the second goal a neutral zone turn over turned into a 4 on 1. On the third goal the Mills were allowed about five whacks at the puck in front of the Trail net before being able to knock it in. On the fourth goal Holst was allowed free access from the corner to the front of the Trail net. Finally, the fifth goal was a breakaway.
Not one of the goals was a floater from the point or say the top of the circle. It's also not like Quesnel was overwhelming Trail with perfectly executed rush after perfectly executed rush. Again, the play was very even and in my view entertaining. Unfortunately, a hand full of broken plays ended up in the back of the Smoke Eater net and was the difference in tonight's game. In my view it was that simple. I'm sure there are a lot of fans who will see the score and demand full scale changes. The talent is there and they've shown the ability to carry the play... but these broken plays are killing them right now.
Of course taking a step back from tonight's game and looking at the bigger picture you also have to acknowledge the mental/emotional side of this situation. I posted a couple of Vince Lombardi quotes earlier basically about how hard it is to overcome fragile confidence when you're losing. I had a conversation with one fan who said to me basically that the guys just had to suck it up and battle through the confidence problems. That is absolutely one of the truest examples of something that is easy to say and an absolute ***** to do. Think positively, believe in yourself, battle through it... and then you get down 1-0 and suddenly it's 2-0 and how do you fight that natural instinct to get anxious?
For example, I had an awful second period tonight in the broadcast booth. Everything was going wrong. I dropped my papers into the stands, I got interrupted two or three times, I got messages saying the broadcast wasn't working and I just wasn't sharp. Add that to the always difficult task of getting to know what was basically a brand new roster for Quesnel and it was probably among my worst periods in a long time. In the intermission I took a moment to compose myself. I did my best to get it together and put it behind me. The third started pretty well, but as soon as I stumbled a little bit here or there I felt the shadow of my bad second period hovering over me and shaking me a little bit.
I don't consider myself "mentally soft" but that impacted my work a little bit, and I'm not competing in a high tempo sport against 20 perfectly conditioned elite athletes. In hockey even the smallest hesitation or fraction of doubt can turn into one of those major break downs that was the difference between a close game tonight and a 5-1 final. This is not an easy thing to fight through. You can't just snap your fingers and break out of it. Coach Ingram can't just make one magical move or say one perfect thing in the dressing room to break the boys out of it. They've just got to keep plugging.
I know there are probably some people close to the team that feel like I've been hard on them lately. I don't relish it. I have to call the games as I see them as much as it pains me to be negative. I have immense respect for the coaches, players, board and everyone involved in this hockey club. If I had a talented son I wouldn't hesitate for even half a second to send him here under the guidance of Coach Ingram, Coach Youngson and Coach Zanier because I know they'd come back to me a better player and most importantly a better man. They are too smart and talented for this to last.
I promise you this Trail Smoke Eaters team will not have too many more nights like this all season. As soon as they get this monkey off their back the tide will turn and the the lights will come on.
Bank on it.
I had a brief chat after the game with former Smoke Eater Skyler Smutek. He's playing some very big minutes this season for Quesnel after being an All-Star with Drayton Valley last season. The biggest thing I noticed in talking with him is that Skyler seemed content and comfortable. I'm really glad to see that. I think as much as it may have been tough at the time, the trade last year was the right thing for him. The ice time he got in the AJHL wasn't available in Trail. He got to spend a year on a bad team playing all sorts of minutes... and he really matured as a player. Now Skyler is older, stronger, more experienced and playing a big role back in the BCHL. He's off to a strong start and really deserves it.
Quesnel is a tough team. I talked to someone today who has seen all the northern teams and strongly feels that the Mills are the top team in the Cariboo. They only lost 2-0 in Vernon. They lost in the last minute of the game against Wetside. This is a good hockey club. They've got a reliable core of vets on the back end. Their goaltending is perhaps the best in the Interior so far. Their best players are doing what your best players have to do by producing key points for them early in the year. They move the puck decently and have at least two lines that can burn you. There's no question in my mind they'll be a playoff team and could even be a dark horse for home ice advantage.
The hockey fans in the Q have suffered for a long time and really deserve better. It looks like they're getting it.
The Williams Lake Timberwolves have proven to be a very hard working team that perhaps is a little short on high end skill. That's to be expected when they are essentially an expansion franchise who didn't have a single "returning" player. They're also finishing off a three day road trip that took them from Prince George to Vernon to Trail tomorrow afternoon. This is a team that is likely going to play some desperate hockey and will look to come out of the gate hot. There is obviously a good chance they could run out of gas late. That being said, tomorrow will be Trail's fourth game in five nights. The Wolves have one win and Trail has none. This is the set up for two very desperate teams to go head to head tomorrow.
I expect a physical, gritty and energetic battle tomorrow. However, I also think the first goal is going to be huge. Both teams are struggling and confidence is sagging. Whichever team can jump out ahead could have a huge emotional advantage. I think the first five minutes of tomorrow's game could really set the tone.
Tomorrow will also be the first chance for the four Castlegar Rebels that joined Williams Lake this season to return home. Three of them (Keagan Little, Anthony DeLong and Darren Tarasoff) are locals. Expect a pretty decent turn out of their friends and family that may create a bit of a Wolves cheering section. Former Nelson Leaf Dane Rupert also plays for Williams Lake. It'll be his first chance to face his former teammates David Piccard and Garrett Beckwith. Those are just a few of the story lines we can dig into tomorrow afternoon. I hope to see you there. If you aren't in town buy the PPV or you can just listen to the broadcast. I expect our feed won't be so shaky tomorrow. It's usually among the best video broadcasts in the BCHL. Our team really does an excellent job behind the scenes.
Keep the faith, Smokies fans! See you or talk to you tomorrow.