As frustrated as he was with the officials, Fred Harbinson was doubly so with his players after Wednesday’s 4-1 home-ice loss to the Trail Smoke Eaters.
The Penticton Vees GM/head coach was still doing the slow burn Thursday morning as the team prepared to hit the ice for practice ahead of an important two road games against the Wenatchee Wild Friday and Saturday (both 7:05 p.m. puck-drops at the Town Toyota Center).
The Vees turned the puck over with reckless abandon in the first two periods and gave up multiple odd-man rushes – including a pair of two-on-zero breaks against shell-shocked goaltender Yaniv Perets.
“It was shameful and embarrassing,” said Harbinson. “The number of breakaways … it was like pond hockey or prep school hockey. We get 3,200 fans on a Wednesday night and we need to play a whole lot harder and smarter than that in the first 40 minutes.
“We tried to beat one of the best teams in our league and the country in one period.”
Harbinson had stressed the importance about staying on the right side of the puck against the explosive Smoke Eaters in practice - and in the media – leading up to the game.
“I’m not a coach who believes in ‘bag-skating’ but we may have to find different ways to get the message across,” said Harbinson. “We’ve played the right way for the most part, but when we’ve lost, it’s when we’ve tried to create instant offence and took too many risks in dangerous areas of the ice.”
Down only 2-0 after 40 minutes mainly due to Perets’ brilliance, Harbinson shuffled the lines and got the response he wanted in the third with the Vees outshooting the visitors 22-9.
The Vees got to 2-1 and pushed relentlessly for the tying goal, missing a breakaway, hitting two posts and getting robbed by Logan Terness on several point-blank chances.
“We were a bounce away … we were all over them,” said Harbinson.
Then came the turning point. The Vees were assessed a too-many-men penalty with 5:37 to go that appeared debatable at full speed, and even moreso on the video later.
Trail scored on the ensuing power play, infuriating the Vees and 3,200 fans even more.
“Not only was it a bad call at a key point late in a close, hard-fought hockey game, it had nothing to do whatever with the play,” said Harbinson. “Our guy (Conner Hutchison) was three feet inside the bench when (Evan) McIntyre came on.
“To compound things, he gives our assistant captain and top scorer (Jay O’Brien) a misconduct for saying something.”
Harbinson said the official later told him that at least he didn’t give O’Brien a game misconduct.
“Do the math … there was (5:37) left and he gets 10 minutes,” said Harbinson. “I don’t know what to say anymore.”
Harbinson noted the Vees might not have tied the game anyway and ultimately were not able to kill the penalty.
“Any way you slice it, we’ve got to be a whole lot better in the first 40 minutes,” said Harbinson.
The Vees are now tied for first place in the Interior Division with Salmon Arm with identical 16-4-1 records. Trail, 14-1-1-1 in their last 17 games, are just two points behind, though they’ve played two more games than the co-leaders.
The Vees look to get back on track in Wenatchee, where they’ve generally had little luck in recent seasons. The Vees won the only other meeting against the Wild this season 5-3 Oct. 5 at the SOEC.
The Wild are in fifth place in the Interior at 11-8-1-1.
“They’ve had an up-and-down season but as we saw here earlier they’ve got a lot of firepower, they can really skate and they’re quick in transition,” said Harbinson. “We’ve certainly got to manage the bluelines better than we did against Trail, and we’ve got to score when we get our opportunities.”
The Wild won their last two games over Merritt, but lost their previous three (two to Salmon Arm and one to Trail) before that.
After the weekend, the Vees will have played 17 of their 29 scheduled road games - and games in Langley and Coquitlam Nov. 19-20, one more visit to Wenatchee on Dec. 4, and one more to Trail on Jan. 10 are their only lengthy bus trips.
“Getting on the road might be a good thing,” Harbinson acknowledged. “At the end of the day we’ve got to be a whole lot better than 4-2-1 at home.”
Harbinson said he wasn’t sure who would get the start in goal Friday, but noted Perets and Carl Stankowski will each get a start this weekend.
The Vees have a pivotal visit to Salmon Arm on Wednesday to start a home-and-home series that concludes next Friday at the SOEC.