The Trail Smoke Eaters hope to ground the Surrey Eagles tonight at the Cominco Arena just like they did a week ago in a 5-3 win over the Eagles in Surrey.
Surrey, last year’s BCHL champion, hasn’t exactly been lighting it up this year, going 18-25-1-1, but thanks to the Chilliwack Chiefs’ 10-31-1-3 record, the Eagles will make the postseason in fourth spot in the Mainland division.
While Trail is out of the playoff picture, they are playing motivated and inspired hockey of late. Despite having just one of a possible five 20-year-old players in the lineup in Dustin Nikkel, the youth movement has caught on and paid modest but surprising dividends.
“It’s creating habits, changing a mindset, changing a culture, it takes time and I mean nothing happens over night, but I feel like right now we have a group that is buying in and playing for each other,”said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes.
After suffering a close 3-2 loss to the Vees at home on Jan. 11., Trail beat Surrey Friday, and took the league-leading Langley Rivermen to overtime before surrendering the win. They then fell to Coquitlam Sunday with a severely depleted lineup, icing just 12 regulars and two APs, because of injury.
“I was pretty happy with the effort,” said Deschenes. “We definitely faced some adversity with a few injuries, so we had a shorter lineup, but I think there are players now that are rising to the challenge and are taking advantage of the opportunity that’s here.”
The Smoke Eaters have 11 of their final 13 games against division opponents, with three versus the Vees, Vernon Vipers, and West Kelowna Warriors, and two against Merritt. Unfortunately, they have no games remaining against the team that knocked them out of last year’s playoffs, the Salmon Arm SilverBacks, but they can make it difficult on the rest of the division. With just two points separating fourth and fifth place, and the Penticton Vees clinging to top spot by just four points, Trail is in a position to play spoiler.
The Smokies travel to Penticton on Saturday to play the Vees who have not won a game since their 3-2 win against Trail. The Vees three consecutive losses have come at the hands of division rivals Merritt, W. Kelowna, and Salmon Arm. The Smokies will look to extend that streak to four.
“It’s David versus Goliath . . . we’re trying to get better, so we want to push the pace, and play our game. We’re not going to get in a defensive shell and stop skating, we want to improve, and play the style of game we want to play regardless of the opponent or the age of the players we have and I think that’s a huge advantage.”
The Smokies played the division-leaders tight in their last two games, effectively shutting down a potent offence led by Brad McLure, Nic Peirog, and blue-liner Brett Beauvais who leads all defencemen in the league in scoring.
“With a healthy lineup and a young hungry team, there’s no reason why we can’t skate at least stride-for-stride with these better teams and, with that, you can eliminate time and space and control talent levels to some extent,” added Deschenes.
The Smokies, however, are still hurting and will be without team leading scorer Jesse Knowler, and newcomers Braden Cross, and Jakson Elynuik. The team will again supplement their lineup with local affiliate players.
Game time tonight is at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.