If you learn a lot from a loss, Trail Smoke Eaters head coach Cam Keith is hoping his players got a textbook full of lessons following last Sunday’s 9-0 debacle against the Vernon Vipers.
The Smokies are eager to put that nightmare behind them as they return to action tonight in Merritt against the Centennials before returning home Saturday night for a date with the perennial division powerhouse Penticton Vees.
“Usually a team incurs, at some point in the season, a beat-down so to speak, for lack of a better term,” explained Keith.
“With the hype built around us playing Vernon, the battle for first place, I think the boys kinda over-thought the game and went away from what’s made us successful up to this point. We’re taking it as a learning experience.”
He added now the focus becomes on bouncing back from that.
“You have turn the page,” said Keith. “The guys need to understand those type of things can never happen in your own rink. You don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the home crowd.”
“We addressed it and talked about it.”
That put the Vernon defeat to rest and Keith is making sure the players don’t start eyeing Saturday’s matchup against Penticton as a chance at redemption. He’s keeping their sights squarely on Merritt.
The Centennials, who are coming off a 5-4 double-overtime win against Salmon Arm last weekend, sit last in the Interior Division but Keith sees a dangerous team that is tough to play against, especially in their home barn.
“We’re going to take different approach for the second game against Penticton,” he said. “We’re not even going to discuss it.
“We’re going to focus on Merritt. They have a tough arena to win in and they have some momentum right now.
“After Merritt we’ll get back late. We’ll have a brief pre-scout on Penticton and play our game. Less focus on the opposing team and more on what we need to do at home.”
Keith alluded to the team’s early success, the improvements off the ice and all the comforts the club has enjoyed with its winning start to the season. Some of that shine was dimmed last Sunday and he’s hoping this year’s Smokies can take a page from last year’s squad.
“Last year we had a group of kids that came back a lot in games and never gave up. We had that persona. Maybe we’ve lost little bit of that sense that we have to earn things. We still have to scrap, we’re still a blue collar team that works hard every night and earns wins not the pretty way but in the trenches.”
There might be no bigger test than on Saturday against the vaunted Vees who, despite sitting fifth in the tight Interior Division, boast the best winning percentage in the BCHL. It’ll be Trail’s first meeting this year with Penticton.
“Penticton is always going to be THE team,” said Keith. “They have so much talent. Every year they seem to reload with six-seven new kids who are interchangeable on the top line of any team in this league.
“(Vees head coach and GM) Fred Harbinson is a legend in this league. He gets his kids to play all the time. There’s never a game that’s easy against Penticton. They’re never a team that you can’t play 60 minutes against because if you play 58 minutes, they’re going to have four goals in those two minutes. They always have that kind of firepower.
“Our strategy is always the same against Penticton – keep pucks along the walls, chip pucks behind their D and try to win the battles down low and try to create offence in a non-transition game where it’s a little bit slower, grinding style.”
Although it’s just past the quarter pole of the BCHL regular season, Keith admitted it’s hard to get a good take on which teams are contenders and which are pretenders in the tight division that sees a mere five points separating first from sixth.
“It’s still tough to read because we haven’t played a lot of divisional games. We haven’t got into those home-and-home matchups. I think what you’re going to see towards Christmas time, and after, is when we get those divisional matchups and the better teams will start to create space from the middle of the pack.
“But right now it’s really tough to tell who is really that strong.”
The weekend matches will close out October for the Smokies who have an interesting November ahead of them.
The club will make its Vancouver Island trip early in the month then enjoy five of six games on home ice over a two-week span towards the end of the month.
It’s an opportunity that Keith hasn’t overlooked. He emphasized how important those pre-Christmas points are to the team’s fortunes further down the road.
“You really want to have a solid position for the playoffs around Christmas time,” he explained. “As the year progresses you tend to get hit with injuries and it’s tougher to call up APs because their teams are involved in their own playoff pushes. So you want to make sure you have those points.
“Last year we were fortunate enough to be in a good spot after Christmas. We didn’t have the best run going into the playoffs but we had enough points from the first half-to-three-quarters of the season that carried us into having home ice in the first round, which was huge.
“So that’s our goal right now.”