The Trail Smoke Eaters will test both ends of the BCHL standings spectrum at home this weekend, as they get set to take on the Cowichan Valley Capitals tonight and the Vernon Vipers on Sunday.
The Smokies biggest test against Cowichan tonight will be not to take the Caps too lightly. Cowichan has just one win (1-7-0-2) on the season, a startling contrast to a 9-3-0-2 Vipers team that shares top spot in the league with the West Kelowna Warriors.
“Last year we went 2-and-7, then went 3-and-3 on our road trip and got rolling from there, so we don’t want to be one of those kick-start reasons for them,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “Any time you ‘play at a team’s level’ you put chance into it. So there’s no reason for us to think it’s going to be an easy game.”
The Capitals have shown recent signs of improvement as well, taking the Wenatchee Wild and Alberni Valley Bulldogs into overtime in back-to-back games before losing 4-3 and 2-1 respectively. The Capitals also played the Warriors tight defensively in a 2-1 setback in West Kelowna last month, and will look to get their three-games-in-three-days road trip off to a good start in Trail.
“We don’t know what kind of team they are, we haven’t played them so we have to prepare like any other game,” said Keith.
Perhaps, Trail’s biggest challenge in the early season comes on Sunday when the Smokies host the Vipers in the first of six regular-season tilts. Trail lost the Interior Division semifinal to a big and physical Vernon team in March, and Keith expects an even better Vipers team this year.
“I think they have more scoring power,” he said. “Three lines that are a threat, you can’t really focus on one. They have a ton of kids that are a first-line player on any other team … and also have a really well-balanced veteran ‘D’ with some toughness, and two really good goaltenders.”
The Vipers have a dozen players already committed to NCAA universities, with Brett Stapley and Jimmy Lambert leading the team in scoring with 17 points each. Vernon boasts a formidable supporting cast up front with Keyvan Mokhtari, Jagger Williamson, Jesse Lansdell, Jordan Sandhu and former WHL Kelowna Rocket Tanner Wishnowski providing a deep and balanced attack, and anchored by veteran MVP defencemen Michael Ufberg and six-foot-five 220-pound Shane Kelly. The snakes also have some of the top rookies in the country with 17-year-old defencemen Jack Judson (Arizona State) and Michael Young (UConn), and 16-year-old forward and Denver University commit Alex Swetlikoff, who was named to the Team Canada U17 squad earlier this week that will play in the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Dawson Creek next month.
“There is really no holes in their game,” added Keith. “Where as last year they weren’t as potent a scoring team, they just played so tough and so hard against you that they’d wear you down. They still have that element to them, they’re still a Mark Ferner coached team where they’re extremely disciplined in their systems and game-decision making. They’re going to come at you with some incredible speed and make some high-end plays in the offensive zone.”
The 9-7-0-1 Smokies are just a point behind Vernon and West K, and have the league’s top-scoring tandem in forwards Ross Armour, 10 goals and 22 points, and Kale Howarth, 10-11-21. Unfortunately, Howarth sat out Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Powell River with an upper body injury and is not expected back in the lineup this weekend, while recent acquisition defenceman Trevor Zinns, who also missed Sunday’s game, is a go for tonight.
Trail’s Blaine Caton caught fire last weekend with three goals in two games to compliment a sound defensive game, and defenceman Jeremy Lucchini earned an honourable mention for the BCHL Player of the Week with four assists in two games. The Trail native has two goals and seven points in the last four games moving him into a tie for 13th overall in league scoring, and second among league defencemen.
Trail’s attack is also becoming more balanced with the emergence of rookies Levi Glasman, Carter Jones and Tyler Ghirardosi, and increased output from veterans like Spencer McLean, Andre Ghantous, Braedon Tuck, and Ryan Murphy.
The Smoke Eaters are also looking to fill the spots of released d-man Olson Werenka and forward Korbyn Chabot, who was sent to the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Drayton Valley Thunder. Losing two of the team’s most physical players is hopefully just a temporary concern, says Keith, who is looking more at the big picture.
“As the season moves along here we have to start looking, not just for pieces that are going to help us for now, but pieces that are going to help us for a seven-game playoff series.”
The Smoke Eaters will get a taste of what that feels like soon enough. Trail plays one of its most telling stretches of the season when the Smokies face Interior Division rivals Vernon, Merritt, Penticton and Wenatchee in four straight games after tonight.
“That’s when you find out the real mettle of your hockey club is when you’re playing back-to-back really tough teams, divisional four-point games situations. That’s when you see if your team has what it takes to be a championship team.”
Trail plays the Capitals tonight with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena, and host the Vipers on Sunday at 3 p.m.