After 225 games in the B.C. Hockey League, Connor Brown-Maloski was in no hurry to shed his Trail Smoke Eater jersey Thursday night at Kal Tire Place.
Instead, the classy captain from Kamloops savoured the final moments of his final junior game with teammates who became brothers in a solid 58-point season.
Even after a 6-2 loss to the Vernon Vipers in Game 5 of the best-of-seven Interior Division semifinal series before 1,825 fans, the Smokies’ dressing room was quiet but proud.
“We’re a family in there and it sucks, but if you look at where we were at the start of the year and what we accomplished, you can’t look at it as a loss,” said Brown-Maloski, who turns 21 in May. “We’re celebrating the year and the time we had together. It was definitely one of the better years of my junior career with the guys in that room, and I’m going to miss them.”
The Vipers are now playing the waiting game since the Merritt Centennials upended the host Penticton Vees 5-4 before 2,856 fans Thursday night at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Penticton led that series 3-2 going into the sixth tilt Friday night in Merritt.
If the Vees prevail, they will host Vernon in Game 1 of the Interior final series Friday, March 31. If the Cents win, the Vipers host the series opener on the same date.
Vernon captain Riley Brandt, a Trail product who scored one of two Viper empty-netters, hugged his cousin, Spencer McLean, and several close friends as the teams exchanged handshakes. Brandt put on civvies, ran out the back door to bid goodbye to his folks and then walked down the hallway to console several Smokies.
“It’s always tough to see,” said Brandt, who began his career with the Smokies. “I’ve been lifelong buddies with a lot of guys on that team and I have tremendous respect for that group. They battled their bags off every night. They have us nothing really; we had to earn every single goal. Every game was a battle.”
Austin Adamson, d-man Michael Ufberg, Jagger Williamson (shorthanded), blueliner Cooper Watson and Jimmy Lambert (empty netter) completed the Vernon offence in front of Darion Hanson.
Mitchell Barker and Russ Armour replied for the Smoke Eaters, who had former North Okanagan Knight Zach Dyment in net.
The Smokies rang up 10 more points than they did a year ago and trimmed 47 goals against while recording 42 more snipes.
Trail pressured Vernon hard except for a 7-1 loss in Game 3. Armour just missed on a Grade A scoring chance in the opening seconds Thursday and the Smokies briefly led 2-1 in the second period.
“They’re a good hockey club,” said Brown-Maloski, of the Vipers. “They bring it every night. The energy they bring is through the roof. We can’t question what we did. They did everything they had to do. Kudos to them.”
D-man Michael Ufberg was chosen first star with 1+1 and some intelligent plays all over the ice for Vernon. He loved the series.
“It was a lot of fun. I think after we had the two-and-a-half weeks off, we had to get into it early and that first game, the boys really came together right away, (Hanson) Darion made a couple key saves early and that kind of showcased what the series was going to be.”
Ufberg gave props to the entire Viper roster for a gritty showing. The Snakes blocked shots in all zones with Ufberg stretching his right skate to stop a shot from the slot. And the fans even booed the officials which rarely happens in Vernon.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere,” added Ufberg. “It’s a totally different type of game. There was so much more passion and urgency shown by everyone on the ice; we were doing it for one another.”
Adamson deftly re-directed a pass by d-man Cameron Trott to open the scoring 2:06 into the middle stanza. D-man Cooper Watson drew the secondary helper.
Mitchell Barker levelled the score 3:40 later on a rebound in front of Hanson. The Smokies moved deep into Vernon territory after Brett Stapley was thwarted by Dyment.
Armour put Trail ahead 85 seconds later from the right side. Luke Santerno and blueliner Jeremy Lucchini garnered assists 56 seconds into a powerplay.
Ufberg equalized 45 seconds later on a low slapper from the left sidewall, assists going to Jesse Lansdell and Trott.
With the game apparently up for grabs, Trott sent a long shot off the end boards while killing a penalty. Jagger Williamson hustled to recover the puck, wait a second and beat Dyment with a low blast 60 seconds into the kill.
Watson’s wrister from the point somehow eluded Dyment at 7;03 of the third period. Brandt, with 3:04 to play, and Jimmy Lambert, with 1:51 remaining, counted empty-netters.
Junior B call-up Brady Berger enjoyed some strong shifts for the Smokies, but absorbed two open-ice heavy body blows from Brandt and Hunter Zandee.
Trail head coach/GM Cam Keith and assistants Barry Zanier and Curt Toneff gave props to their players for a stellar season after the playoff exit.
“We told them we were proud of their efforts this year,” said Keith. “Our 20-year-old group were just tremendous through the season. We were a team not expected to make the playoffs. A lot of kids stepped up and had great years. It’s hard to say after losing but that was a very good Vernon team.
“We were a little short (four regulars on IR) and it kind of hurt us trying to have that energy consistently. It was a good year, considering those factors.”
The Vipers finished sixth overall in the 17-team BCHL with 69 points. The Smokies were eighth.
Barker, Brown-Maloski, Josh Laframboise, who played hurt on the fourth line in Game 5, Carter Cochrane and Zyment all age out with Trail.