The Trail Smoke Eaters haven’t defeated the Vernon Vipers much over the past few B.C. Hockey League seasons.
The Smokies were rested and more than ready Sunday afternoon as they stopped the Vipers 4-1 before 1,500 fans at Cominco Arena. Trail had Saturday night off, while the Vipers iced the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 4-2 before hopping a bus for Trail early Sunday morning.
It was a special win for Vernon’s Caton family as former Viper Blaine Caton registered what proved to be the winning goal, a controversial snipe, with 0.7 seconds left in the first period.
Blaine’s father, Murray Caton, backstopped the Vernon Lakers to two Centennial Cups back in the early 19902, and is currently a scout for the team. while Blaine suited up in 48 games with the Snakes during the 2014-15 season, pocketing four goals and eight points before being released.
“Personally, it’s awesome winning against your former team, every night you can,” said Caton. “For our team, that’s a team we haven’t beat over there, so trying to match up with them in the playoffs, it’s just good to show the guys in the room that we can beat a team like that.”
Caton’s timely 13th tally came as he gathered a rebound off a scramble in front and lifted the puck over Vernon goalie Anthony Yamnitsky for a 2-1 Smoke Eaters lead.
“I actually didn’t even know how much time was left on the clock,” said Caton. “I saw Jer (Lucchini) pick up the puck in the neutral zone and start skating … I went to the front of the net and he threw it there, it popped out and lucky enough it was there on my stick.” The victory over the Vipers was the Smokies first in five tries this year and was as significant as victories get with 11 games to play in the regular season.
“It was a huge mental obstacle,” said Smoke Eaters coach/GM Cam Keith. “We needed confidence that we can beat Vernon. For whatever reason it carried over from last year to this year, and for us in our room, we made a big statement that if we play our game we can beat any team at any time, so it was huge.”
Defenceman Connor Welsh gave Trail a 1-0 lead at 5:14 of the first period when he corralled a loose puck at the blue line and wired a shot over the glove of Yamnitsky for his ninth goal of the season. However, Vernon tied it when a missed drop pass to Smokies d-man Seth Barton turned into a 2-on-1 for the Vipers.
Jesse Lansdell broke down the right wing and feathered a pass over to Josh Prokop whose one-timer beat a sprawling Adam Marcoux at 11:53 of the first. Niko Karamanis drew the secondary assist on Prokop’s 21st. Penalty trouble subdued a Smoke Eaters attack in the second period, as Trail focused on killing five penalties including a 5-on-3 Vernon advantage midway through the period.
“I think the 5-on-3 was a real big one,” said Keith. “I mean your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Adam Marcoux has been absolutely tremendous. He makes big saves at big times, and calms the game down.”
That Smokies’ kill proved to be a turning point as Marcoux made his best save of the night off Prokop. With the Smokies shorthanded, the Vernon forward took a backdoor pass at the far post and was looking at an empty net, but the Smokies goalie stretched out and stopped the puck with his right pad, not once but twice, to preserve the one-goal lead, as Vernon outshot the Smoke Eaters 23-17 through two periods.
“It’s been a while since we faced a top team and come out with two points, so it’s crucial, especially against a team like Vernon, who we’re most likely going to see in the playoffs at some time,” said Marcoux. “I knew there was a guy backdoor, I think it was (Jordan) Sandhu that was in front, his eyes weren’t on the net at all, they were on the guy backdoor. So I can anticipate it and I’m lucky he didn’t put it in on the rebound.”
The Smokies played solid defensive hockey in the third, and while Vernon pressed early, Marcoux came up big when he had to. Smokies forward Spencer McLean had been battling Vernon defenceman Shane Kelly all night, and finally got the better of the 6-foot-5 d-man when he jumped on an Andre Ghantous rebound and chipped it past the Vipers goalie for a 3-1 lead with just over five minutes to play.
“Kelly’s got some size and some strength to him,” said Keith. “But you’ve got to give Spencer credit, he stood in there, took some shots and didn’t back down and then got rewarded for it in finding the rebound.”
Vernon pulled their goalie in the final 1:45, but the Smokies weathered an initial storm until Trail’s Minnesota product, Ryan Murphy, iced it with an empty-net goal with 23 seconds remaining for the 4-1 victory.
“It’s playoff hockey,” added Keith. “They’re in the same battle that we are right now, and everyone is clawing for positioning in the standings. As you saw, it’s a 2-1 game, there wasn’t a lot of chances for and against, and goals are scored on a rebound or scramble in front, you just have to find ways to get there and we did tonight. We had a ton of traffic, and a lot of heart from the kids today.”
Vernon outshot Trail 31-28 and was 0-for-7 on the power play, while Trail went 0-for-3. Marcoux earned the game’s first star, Caton second star, and McLean third star.
The Vipers share the Interior Division penthouse with the Penticton Vees, 6-3 losers to the host Victoria Grizzlies Sunday. The Smokies are fourth, three points behind the Wenatchee Wild.
The Vipers host the Merritt Centennials Wednesday night. Merritt gained three points in a weekend series at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, winning 3-2 and losing 2-1 in double overtime.