Talent overcame teamwork but just barely.A steady performance by Team Canada West held off a hungry Trail Smoke Eaters squad for a 2-1 win in front of 550 fans at the Cominco Arena last night.
Team Canada West, which has been together for all of three days, took on the hometown Smokies, a team with a third of its 60-game season under its belt, in its first exhibition game prior to the World Junior A Hockey Challenge.
And as expected, the talented Canada West crew had its hands full with the seasoned Smokies.
David Arduin put the Smokies up 1-0 early in the first but Scott Enders' power play goal midway through the first tied the game and Derek Lee's quick blast with six minutes left in the second proved to be the difference.
But on this night it wasn't about the final score, at least for Team Canada West head coach Boris Rybalka.
"We were a little bit sloppy on our end. But I think that's nerves from putting the Maple Leaf on your chest," he said. "We just want to do something better every day."
The Smokies outshot Team Canada West 32-31 including a hectic third period where Trail fired 13 shots at West goalie Bradley Eidsness.
Although Team Canada West flashed plenty of talent, the Smokies' familiarity with each other helped them keep the game very competitive.
"I give (Trail) credit," said Rybalka. "We know we'll be up against that in the tournament where teams like the Russians have been together.
They're going to know where each other plays."
The Smokies also gave Team Canada West a taste of physical play, especially for the BCHL players on the roster.
"We targeted them more than any other guys," admitted Arduin. "It's pretty easy to get up for the game when you're playing Team Canada."
Canada West forward Mike Connolly, who plays in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, noticed the Smokies aiming for their BCHL foes.
"There's a little hatred out there. But that's what we need. We're glad they came out and played hard."
Team Canada West defenceman Andrew Macwilliam also got involved in the physical game and dished out his share of hits on Smoke Eaters.
Rybalka said that's the type of intensity he was hoping Trail would provide.
"We didn't want a pond hockey game. We were glad there was some physical play."
After some initial domination by Team Canada West, thanks to their overall speed, the Smokies battled back and had the crowd on its feet with the first goal of the game.
"I think we competed well," said Arduin. "We knew they were going to get better with every game they play. This is why they play exhibition games."
For players on both sides it was also a case of overcoming some early butterflies.
"We were a little nervous at first," said Connolly. "For a lot of us it was the first time wearing the Maple Leaf. It's a great honour."
At the other end of the rink, Trail goaltender Grant Rollheiser got the start and a quick sample of the Team Canada West talent as they penned the Smokies in their end for the first minute of the game.
"As soon as the puck dropped and they came into our zone it felt like I had no legs," said Rollheiser, who split the duties with Paul Barclay. "After that I was fine.
"We went out there and had fun. The team played really well together. Why can't we do this every game?"
While the Smokies hope to bottle that effort for a pair of weekend games in Merritt, the Team Canada West brain thrust was busy reviewing the game and assessing the players and combinations.
"The biggest challenge is to mold the team," said Rybalka, who put together a gold-medal winning team in last year's World Junior A Challenge.
"We know how it worked last year. We have a system, it worked, so why would we change the formula?"
As for the line combinations, the big-time trio of Joe Colborne, Casey Pierro-Zabotel and Connelly appears to be Team Canada West's biggest offensive threat.
"I'm looking forward to playing with Zab," said Connolly, who is a teammate of Colborne's with the AJHL's Camrose Kodiaks. "He's a dominant player. And me and Joe know each other well. We're looking to get Zab the puck and he can do what he does best."
A BCHL combination of Brett Hextall, Russell Goodman and Zac Dalpe knew how to get under the Smokies skin and proved effective at both ends of the rink.
Meanwhile, with seven defencemen, Rybalka juggled the pairings.
"There might be some fine tuning," he said. "Overall the potential is there."
Connolly added it's a matter of brining it all together in a hurry.
"We're still getting to know each other," he said. "I think we're gelling pretty quick which is what you have to do in a short tournament like this."
Game Notes: the only injury in the game could be huge for the Smokies as Stefan Decosse left with a separated shoulder. ... Team Canada West's Casey Pierro-Zabotel wore the captain's "C" while Brett Hextall and Damon Kipp were the assistants. ... Team Canada West plays Russia tonight in Nelson. ... Team Canada East will face Russia on Saturday in the final exhibition game at the Cominco Arena.