The Trail Smoke Eaters got their first road victory of the season tonight. The 4-2 win in Nanaimo was an example of what this team is capable of when everybody buys in and works hard. It wasn't a perfect game, but it didn't have to be. The main thing out there tonight was that the guys played the same way from the first line through the fourth and from the first pairing through the third. With Graeme Strukoff out of the line-up we really saw the whole team realize their roles in the defensive zone. I don't think I've seen them play as efficiently in their own end as they did in the final five minutes of the third period. Every player did everything they could to make sure Nanaimo didn't have a chance to snatch that victory away from the Smoke Eaters. It was nice to see the whole forward crew realize what can happen when they fully commit to their own zone. For example, I don't think I've ever seen Travis St. Denis make as much difference in his own zone as he did tonight. He was a force in the last minute especially. It was a big step forward for the whole forward group.
It was also the best game the rookie defencemen have played as a unit. We've seen some games where each of them have stepped up, but tonight I think all four of the rookies in the line-up really delivered. They made smart, simple plays and quick decisions in their own end. It was a big step for a guy like Chaput who hasn't been in the line-up a lot lately to play essentially a mistake free game. It was also a chance for Wade Bennett to get back in the line-up on the back end in what was his smoothest effort of the year. He should also have had an assist on the second Trail goal. Ben Matthews was a force all game long with a smart pinch on his first BCHL goal and some smart plays with his stick. You've already seen what Walker's solid play has earned him. These guys were given opportunities with the injury to Strukoff and all want to show they can be counted on for big minutes.
The loss of Strukoff also puts extra pressure on Kaufmann and Koshey. Both guys responded with very strong efforts. Again they played simple games and made quick decisions. Both guys were also quick and efficient when they had that 5 on 3 opportunity. We heard talk of Kaufmann's shot and that was the first time we got to see it in action. His first BCHL goal was an absolute rocket. As for Koshey, he continues to be a key factor in setting up goals. The Trail native is now sitting at 9 points through 15 games. That's good enough to tie for 10th place among defencemen in the BCHL. If he can continue to simplify his defensive game the way he did today we could be talking about a league all-star down the road.
Of course I can't mention the victory without discussing what was a very clutch performance by Kiefer Smiley. It was without question Smiley's best game as a Smoke Eater. He made some enormous saves that really displayed his solid instincts and athletic ability. The one pad stop where he slid across the crease was spectacular. Smiley also controlled his rebounds and did a very good job calming the play down. I can't count how many times he was able to cover the puck up with the team really needed it last night. That was the kind of clutch performance they needed between the pipes to get that first road win.
Speaking of clutch, when things weren't going Trail's way in the second period Thomas Abenante turned the tide with his first BCHL goal. What a night for firsts! Matthews, Kaufmann and Abenante all lit the lamp for the first time. After two weeks of hard work and narrow misses, Abenante made good on a Nanaimo turnover to restore the 2 goal lead.
The Smokies took a 3-0 lead on goals by Matthews (putting in the rebound on a nice low shot by Mellor), Kaufmann and Mellor (on a very nice set up from Scott Jacklin). It was a first star performance for Mellor who is already exceeding the pace he was on last year as a 16 year old in Junior B. His 8 goals also have him tied for the team lead with Tye Lewis. It's been a heck of a start to Mellor's BCHL career and it'll be a lot of fun for Trail fans to watch him continue to develop.
I'm sure more than a few fans felt like they were experiencing deja-vu when the Clippers started chipping away at Trail's lead with the late PP goal on the first and early marker in the second. Those two goals had the Smokies on their heels and in danger of giving up the lead all together. They had just lost four straight games after taking early leads. It wasn't something they could afford to do again. That's when Justin Brown dropped the gloves and tried to inspire the troops. He did it despite the fact that he's still dealing with a minor injury that kept him out of the line-up last weekend. That fight and the huge goal by Abenante helped Trail stem the tide and get back on track. The rest of the way may have seen the Clippers out shoot and out chance Trail, but the Smokies limited the quality of most of the opportunities. They played a very solid road game and got the job done. The Smokies also showed themselves they had what it takes to close out a win in a tight, hard fought game. That's something they had yet to do this season as the two other wins were a blow out and an overtime win.
Make no mistake, Nanaimo was a tough opponent. They worked hard and really put some pressure on with their physical attack on the forecheck. The Clippers have a very effective cycle game that created a lot of chances in front of the Trail net. The Smokies were just a lot better in front of their goal tonight. It was not holiday there tonight. That was another key in Trail's victory. However, there's a lot of talent and work ethic on that Nanaimo club. I bet as the younger defence continues to adjust to the league you'll see them start to climb the standings before Christmas. They certainly won't be a push over against anyone.
I wanted to note as well that it was too bad AP Gavin Hohl got hurt mid-way through the game and will miss some action in the VIJHL. He did a very solid job and didn't look out of place. Almost had a point too when he and Dyck got sent in on a 2 on 1 by Brown. I wouldn't be surprised if the club had him back in the line-up when the club is back on the island in the new year.
It sure helps to be able to set up a home base here and not have to ride the bus for hours before game time. Trips like this make realize how different it must be for teams who have their share of one or two hour trips to road games rather than a minimum of four hours. Being in one spot sure helps the guys play with more energy and keep that energy all game long. It also helped that the guys had an opportunity to do some team bonding on their off day. The mood around the club has really improved. They can try and build on that with a re-match against Cowichan Valley tomorrow. The Capitals did to Trail last week what Trail did to Nanaimo tonight. Now the Smokies can return the favour.
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