Trail Smoke Eaters coach Bill Birks played on the 1989-90 Merritt Centennials team that halted the New Westminster Royals winning streak at 29 games.
On Thursday night, he was hoping his team could do the same against Penticton by keeping the Vees to 34 straight wins.
It wasn’t meant to be. While Smoke Eaters goalie James D’Andrea earned first-star honours at the South Okanagan Events Centre, the goalie with just one win under his belt couldn’t contain the offensive monster that is Penticton, who won 4-2. Midway through the third period, Troy Stecher fed Connor Reilly, who drove to the net and tucked the puck between D’Andrea’s legs. The 20-year-old went nuts.
“I feel like I’ve been snake bitten,” said Reilly, whose goal sent the crowd of 1,874 into a craze. “I wanted to show up when it counted most. Fred (Harbinson, Vees coach-GM) challenged us. I used my speed to go to the net. I screamed to get the puck. It’s a big relief.”
That goal, which Vees forward Wade Murphy said was the turning point, came at 10:47. At 11:29 Steven Fogarty made a great play with traffic in front of the Smoke Eaters net. The New York Rangers prospect grabbed the puck, and instead of making a move to go to his left for a shot, he spotted Joey Benik to his right and the future St. Cloud State Huskie made no mistake hitting the back of the empty net.
While it looked as though Reilly’s goal would stand as the winner, Smoke Eater Clayton McEwan found a hole between Vees goalie Chad Katunar and the post, tucking in the puck when he looked to make a wrap-around move.
Mike Reilly sealed the game for the Vees when he took advantage of a massive opening between centre ice and the Smoke Eaters’ blueline. He carried the puck in, made a move on the defender and sent the puck to Murphy, who had nothing but net to hit.
“I couldn’t miss from there,” said Murphy, adding he thought the Smoke Eaters may have been on a line change as the play developed.
Reilly said he knew his younger brother Mike would capitalize on such a gap.
“With that much time and space, he’s going to make a play,” said Reilly.
Harbinson said liked the first period his team had, but said they got away from what makes them successful in the second period. In the third, which saw them score three goals on 14 shots, Harbinson said they got back to basics.
“Connor’s goal is a result of that,” said Harbinson. “That was a good hockey game. Trail should be proud of the game they played. They did an outstanding job.”
Smoke Eaters coach Birks said he was very happy with the effort of his players, who executed the system they had planned for the Vees.
“That’s a good hockey team,” said Birks. “Winning 35 straight games is ridiculous.”
Next for the Vees is a trip to the Nicola Valley Arena on Saturday to face the Merritt Centennials. Harbinson wants his players to have their energy at a high level. Emotions were high with the Centennials the last time the two teams met, and Harbinson said they should “be prepared for a hostile environment.”
On Sunday, the Vees host the Prince George Spruce Kings at 2 p.m.