For nearly 40 minutes, the Trail Smoke Eaters had no answer for the free-wheeling Vernon Vipers.
A late second-period goal by Connor Brown-Maloski gave the Smokies a spark Saturday night at Kal Tire Place, at least enough to make it interesting as the Snakes used some late-game heroics to pull out a 6-4 win in front of 2,200 B.C. Hockey League fans.
Vernon, second in the Interior Division at 23-11-1-2, was absolutely dominant in the opening two periods, outshooting the 13-22-0-2 Smoke Eaters 40-12 (55-19 overall) and racking up a 3-0 lead midway through the second frame.
Shifty Liam Finlay opened the scoring on Vernon’s first powerplay, roofing a quick wrister over netminder Brett Clark for his 14th of the season.
Just 29 seconds later, the Vipers got in on a forecheck and Luke Voltin forced the puck back to the point where second star Kenny Citron hammered a low blast for his first of the season, and second-career BCHL goal.
Citron, a stay-at-home d-man who took in the Giants vs Eagles NFL tilt while he was home in Hartsdale, N.Y. for the holidays, assisted on Anthony Latina’s 3-0 goal, his 12th, 12:54 into the second period.
“It was a good screen by (forward Colton) McCarthy, so a credit to him for that,” said Citron, of his goal. “It’s nice, but you want to take care of defence first, and then that stuff handles itself. It’s nice to chip in offensively, but it stems from our forwards getting to the net and creating traffic.”
Brown-Maloski (8th goal), taking a cross-ice pass in the neutral zone from Max Newton, streaked up the left wing and picked the top right corner on a wicked snapshot with 18 seconds to play in period two.
The momentum was short-lived as Vernon agitator Riley Brandt (7th) snuck a shot past Clark from a terrible angle two minutes into the third period.
After that, the Vipers appeared to lose focus and Trail capitalized on some sloppy play in Vernon’s end. Clark earned third star with 49 saves.
Harlan Orr, a Vernon minor hockey product, disrupted a Vipers’ breakout and floated a pass to Scott Davidson, who was all alone in front of Jarrod Schamerhorn. With all kinds of time, the Trail native went backhand-forehand on the helpless Vernon tender for his 11th goal.
With Vernon continuing to play carelessly in their end, Newton (4th) made them pay again with a top-shelf snipe on Schamerhorn’s doorstep after Ross Armour and Brown-Maloski created a turnover behind the net.
Bryan Basilico (8th) knotted the score 4-4 just 40 seconds later on a bad-angle shot from the outer hashmarks to Schamerhorn’s right. Orr drew the assist.
“At one point, we had three guys behind the net and they score,” said Vipers’ assistant coach Kevin Kraus. “Another time, we had five guys sitting at the blueline and their guy’s sitting alone in front of the net. So they scored two goals uncontested in front of the net. It’s not something where we can blame Schamerhorn.
“It was a good 40 minutes. We had a bit of a lapse there, but good for our group to overcome it and still get the win.”
After that, it was the Thomas Aldworth show, as the smooth-skating Texan displayed a deadly accurate shot in recording his 27th and 28th goals of the season, which are second best in the league behind Coquitlam’s Corey Makin’s 37.
Aldworth, named first star, tagged up at the blueline, skated onto a loose puck and unleashed a ridiculous snapper that sailed over Clark’s shoulder for the first one.
Just as the Trail keeper was about to leave the net for an extra attacker, Aldworth pounced on a turnover at the Smoke Eaters’ blueline and went in for the insurance goal at 19:08, firing just inside the post.
Trail head coach Nick Deschenes – ejected in the second period – credited his group for not giving up. They were without high-scoring Dallas Calvin and Craig Martin.
“We’ve had a tough year,” said Deschenes, who helped turn around the KIJHL Grand Forks Border Bruins before joining the Smokies midway through the 2013-14 season.
“That was definitely a positive 10 or 15 minutes where we were able to put pucks in the net. We got it close, and a little bit of a breakdown at the end.
“They (Vipers) have a great work ethic and it’s top to bottom in their whole lineup. Right now, we’re not quite there. It’s a great test when you play teams like this to see where you stand. Them and Penticton are in a league of their own.”
Orr, playing for his fourth BCHL team, is putting up decent numbers and playing quality minutes with the Smoke Eaters. The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder is fourth on team scoring with 11-13-24 in 36 games. He knows it will be a bit of a stretch to make the post-season.
“We figure we need around 17 wins to get in playoffs, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error,” he said. “These next few games, we definitely have to get it on track.”
Regarding the game, he added: “We got better as the game went on. Once we got into the third period and found our footing, we started to perform and we made it a game. Unfortunately, we gave it back and weren’t able to pull it out.”
Vernon begins a three-game weekend Friday by hosting the Prince George Spruce Kings (18-15-0-4) at the Big Wheel, followed by the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (18-13-1-3) Saturday. The Snakes visit the last-place Surrey Eagles (7-29-0-3) for a Sunday matinee.
“This is where it really starts to matter, and this is where you want to start getting hot,” said Citron, of the run to playoffs. “This is when good team really start to put it together.”
SNAKE BITES: Vernon rookie Jagger Williamson was placed on injured reserve after he blocked a point shot with his foot in Vernon’s final pre-holiday tilt against Powell River…With Linden Hora out sick, d-man Mitch Oliver moved up to forward against Trail, and showed some good aggression on the forecheck…Finlay rang the crossbar on a penalty shot at 14:39 of the third period after he was hooked going in on a breakaway.