Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gameday: Smoke Eaters @ Centennials

Who: Trail Smoke Eaters @ Merritt Centennials
When: November 10, 7:30 PM
Where: Nicola Valley Arena, Merritt

The Smoke Eaters go in search of a fifth win in six games tonight in Merritt against a Centennials club coming off an impressive victory of their own.

Braden Pears was last night's overtime hero for Trail, tapping home a rebound to lift the Smokies to a dramatic 2-1 win here in Vernon. It was a game the Smokies never led, but Trail was very strong in all areas of the ice, outhitting, outworking and outhustling the Vipers to earn their second win in the four-game season series.

Tonight brings a different animal. The tight confines at the Nicola Valley Arena call for a grinding, physical style of play more bent on puck movement and possession than individual speed and finesse. To me, that suits the Smokies just fine. Their play in the low half of the offensive zone and along the walls was excellent last night, watch for that to be a key factor in determining a winner this evening.

One thing that has surprised me to this point in the season is Trail's ability to battle back during the late stages of games. Yesterday's victory was the fourth time the Smokies have won despite trailing after 40 minutes, with three of those triumphs coming in overtime. In fact, Trail's last two wins have both seen early goals against and third-period comebacks.

What more can I say about Brent Baltus? The 20 year-old matched his 2011-12 goal total (14) with his third-period equalizer last night. He's a perfect example of what hard work and commitment can lead to, and seems to be relishing his role as a leader and go-to player on this team.

Omitted from last night's three stars, but worthy of recognition as well is Lyndon Stanwood, who after surrendering an early goal shut the door on the Vipers, making 24 saves to record his eighth win of the season. A second-period rob-job on a Michael Roberts breakaway may have been his highlight of the night.

All that considered, and with the euphoria of a win in a building that traditionally has not brought Trail much success, the focus now has to go to the task at hand. The Smokies will need to match the commitment level and intensity of what's sure to be a hard-working Merritt club that has won all three meetings between the two sides this season.

Last Meeting: Merritt skated out of the Cominco Arena with a 3-1 victory on October 14th, despite (from my vantage point) Trail carrying the play for most of the game. The Smokies' last victory over the Cents came in late November of 2011 on a Marley Keca game-winner.

Our Opponent: I'm sure the Centennials raised some eyebrows with a 3-2 win in Penticton last night. Brandon Bruce had the game-winner late in the second period as Merritt improved to 11-5-1-1 and moved to within four points of the first-place Vees. Perhaps less surprising is how the Centennials have been winning games: Merritt averages a shade more than 3 goals per game, but have been positively stingy in a defensive zone anchored by Canada West invitee goaltender Tyler Steel. Playmaker Regan Soquila leads the Cents in scoring (2-17-19), while former Millionaire and Chief Derek Huisman is top dog in goals with 7. 

In the Press Box: Trail remains without the injured Braeden Jones and Bryce Knapp, while Luke Sandler will serve the second of a two-game suspension tonight. Matt Carr (Fernie Ghostriders) will fill in on the blueline. Merritt will be without defenseman Dane Birks, who is taking part in the CJHL Top Prospects game in the Maritimes.

Broadcast Info: Watch tonight's game from Merritt on FAST Hockey pay-per-view, or listen live at Smokies Ustream. Pre-game is set for 7:20 with the opening faceoff slated for 7:30 tonight.

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