The Wild are fierce in the Toyota Town Center having lost just four games at home all season, and boasting a league best 24-4-0-1 record after beating the Smoke Eaters 5-2 and 4-1 in their two-game set in Wenatchee.
“I thought we played two pretty tough games,” said Smoke Eaters assistant coach Jessie Leung. “They play at a pretty high pace so I thought we did really good on the road to keep up with them, dealing with a bit of bus legs and a touch of the Flu, so it was some adversity for our team to go through before playoffs and this last little stretch here.”
“For us … we know we’re in a hostile environment, to keep pushing back as we did in both games is a positive sign for us.”
In front of a season high over 3,900 Wild fans on Saturday, Trail’s Ross Armour opened the scoring netting his 20th of the season on an odd-man rush with Carter Jones and Kale Howarth at 13:52 of the first period. However, Wenatchee replied just 25 seconds later when Josh Arnold walked out from behind the Smoke Eater goal and stuffed it past Adam Marcoux to tie it at 1-1.
Trail went shot-for-shot with Wenatchee in the first, but the middle frame proved the Smokies undoing as goals from Zak Galambos, A.J. Vanderbeck, and Daniel Chladek put the Wild up 4-1, while outshooting Trail 17-7.
The third period remained scoreless and Trail suffered their third straight loss on its epic road trip to Prince George on Wednesday, followed by a 1,000 km bus ride to Wenatchee.
The Wild outshot the Smoke Eaters 39-26 going 1-for-4 on the power play, while Trail was 0-for-4.
In Friday’s match, the Smoke Eaters fell behind 2-0 early but fought back to tie at two on a pair of goals from Braeden Tuck midway through the second period as the Trail forward netted a power play goal, and 1:39 later, popped a shorthanded marker for his 15th of the season.
However, Wenatchee took advantage of a string of five straight Trail penalties and Jasper Weatherby scored his 37th on the power play for a 3-2 lead at 15:31.
Then with the Smoke Eaters down two men, Murphy Stratton converted a Sam Morton pass for a 4-2 lead with 2:45 remaining in the middle frame.
“We were playing well until we got hammered with five penalties in a row,” said Leung. “But that is the direction the league is going, when you look back there’s a lot of stick infractions, and I think they’re ones where some of them are 50/50 plays when in any other given game they might not be called. But at the same time, we need to take the responsibility and not put ourselves in that position where they could be called.”
Trail pushed back in the third outshooting the Wild 12-5, but couldn’t get another one by Wild goalie Seth Eisele. Wenatchee held a 37-24 edge in shots, scoring on 2-of-8 chances while Trail were 1-for-4 on the power play.
“They have the second-ranked power play in the league so that was good for us to hold them to that.”
Trail has three games remaining in the regular season, and travel to Merritt to face the Centennials on Tuesday before returning to the Cominco Arena for their final home game against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks on Friday.
The Centennials are on a four-game unbeaten streak and tied with Salmon Arm for sixth spot with 50 points in the Interior Division, trailing the West Kelowna Warriors by six points. The Smoke Eaters have fourth spot in the Interior nailed down with 67 points, but have had a tough time against the Cents this season, losing three of five games.
Considering Trail can’t improve its spot in the standings, the coaching staff may choose to rest certain players, in particular goaltender Adam Marcoux, who has seen action in 23 straight games since joining the Smoke Eaters on Dec. 9, and 46 in all, including the games played with former team, the Cowichan Valley Capitals.
“We’re certainly going to get (Tanner) Marshall a couple starts here as we wind down,” said Leung. “We’re making sure that once we’re in the playoffs, we’re healthy and ready to go. As we’ve said often, the team that’s the healthiest in the playoffs typically does the best, and it becomes a war of attrition once you get into it.”
“We haven’t made any firm decisions on rosters in the upcoming games but we’re going to make sure whatever happens in these last games that we enter the playoffs with confidence and have healthy bodies to make a big run here.”