Given it was Faith Night Friday at Kal Tire Place, the Trail Smoke Eaters really didn’t have a prayer against the Vernon Vipers.
With 10 local churches supporting their boys, Austin Smith registered 31 saves as the Vipers shut down the last-place Smokies 5-0 in B.C. Hockey League action before 2,156 fans.
Down to just nine forwards and five defencemen due to injuries, the gritty Smokies played the Vipers tough through a scoreless opening period. Liam Coughlin jumpstarted the offence at 7:56 of the second session with his 14th of the season, burying a Dexter Dancs’ feed in front.
Demico Hannoun pulled off a few toe drags for his 14th three minutes later, after taking a pass from d-man Jared Wilson.
Thanks to Smith, that was all the Vipers really needed but the ever-improving Logan Mick made it 3-0 with a sweet backhand on a two-on-one with Coughlin, with six minutes left in the game.
Smith took the crease after starter Danny Todosychuk was injured after being run over by Brandon Volpe at 5:47 of the first period. Brendan Persley won a clear decision over Volpe two minutes earlier, stepping in quickly for d-man Josh Bryan, who first challenged Volpe.
Smith recorded bang-bang saves in the second period off Joel Webb and Greyson Reitmeier with the Vipers two men short. He even found a way to make a glove stop off Bryan Basilico with Volpe underneath him.
“They wanted to get us out of there I guess,” smiled Smith. “It was a bizarre night for that stuff.”
On his first-star showing, Smith said: “That five-on-three, I needed to make those two saves. You can’t take nights off even though you’re uncertan what’s gonna happen with Trail not having a lot of guys. We pushed through it and it definitely builds character.”
Dancs converted his 21st on a shot which bounced in off the back leg of goalie Dustin Nikkel, with just under four minutes to play. Dancs fired a banked pass by Tyler Povelofskie.
Michael McNicholas finished the fireworks at 17:11, going upstairs after a nifty pass by Coughlin, who got the puck from Dancs.
Coughlin drove hard to the net and was pushed into Nikkel, drawing an interference penalty early in the third. He rated second star, but was giving Smith the bigger props.
“Smitty was unbelievable. The saves he made were increidble. He kept us in that game. It seemed like we played shorthanded the whole game (Smokies had six powerplays).”
Trail coach Nick Deschenes, who lost Vernon product Nathan Browne on his back end early after he was blindsided, says the nine-win Smokies are weary but still going full tilt.
“Everyone’s playing for careers, for scholarships, for opportunities, and they’re probably getting too much opportunity at this point,” said Deschenes, who played pro in the Europe and the AHL (Philly) “We’re battling, like you saw, and we’re keeping the moral up and keeping them prepared as possible for these grueling experiences.”
Viper d-man Ken Citron took care of Basilico after he checked TJ Dumonceaux from behind.