With a dozen games left in the regular season and a single point separating third and fifth place in the Interior Division, every point counts for the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Trail goes into Merritt tonight tied with the Centennials for third place in the Interior and face a tough task in wrestling two points from a team that holds a 4-and-0 advantage over the Smokies this season.
“Unfortunately we’ve been on the losing end of our head-to-head matches, but throughout a season your team’s always at different focal points, and hopefully with our group right now and the playoff implications, we rise more to the challenge against them,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “It’s a huge best-of-three series, that will have some kind of weight towards home-ice advantage.”
The Smoke Eaters, 21-21-4-0, are coming off a 6-3 victory over Coquitlam, following two losses versus Surrey and Chilliwack last week. Trail will be missing two key players in Connor Brown-Maloski, suspension, and Kale Howarth, who will be playing in the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Top-Prospects Game in Burlington, Ont. tonight. However, joining Howarth on Team West will be Merritt forwards Michael Regush and Tyler Ward in the annual tilt with Team Canada East and West chosen by NHL Central Scouting to highlight the top 18-year-old players in the CJHL.
Howarth is looking forward to the experience, and says, along with being the top BCHL prospect, 129th on the mid-term rankings in the NHL Central Scouting’s watch list, everything is happening pretty fast for the Red Deer native.
“It’s actually a pretty surreal feeling to be chosen for something that special,” said Howarth. “I know I’m just pretty excited and it’s going to be a good experience.”
As for Merritt, the 18-17-8-2 Centennials have been on a roll of late, winning four of their last five games, including two victories over second place Vernon Vipers and a 3-2 win over division-leading Penticton Vees.
“Merritt is a very good team,” said Keith. “When they were struggling before, it was because of injuries, it wasn’t because of their roster. They’re back to healthy and they have the Ward kid back who is a pretty good force, and the two Minnesota kids, (Zach) Risteau and (Cade) Gleekel are really clicking, so it’s going to be a really tough game, especially playing in Merritt, it’s always one of the tougher road barns to play in.”
With 22 goals and 40 assists, Risteau leads the Cents in scoring with Gleekel just a point behind, while Brett Jewell and Zach Court have pitched in 27 points each to supplement their top line. The Cents also shored up their backend at the trade deadline with the addition of six-foot-six, 225-pound defenceman Ethan King, 17, from the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Heading into the regular season’s final month, Trail will face Interior Division rivals in 10 of their last 12 games, with three matches each against Merritt, Penticton, and Vernon, and one versus Salmon Arm.
With the new playoff format, the top two teams in the Interior get a bye for the first round of the playoffs, so third-to-sixth place will jockey for position for home ice in the best-of-five opening round playoff.
“Our main focus is just getting home ice for the first-round match up,” added Keith. “If you look at those arenas, it will be an advantage to have those first two games at home, so that’s where we are at right now to put ourselves in a position to finish in third or fourth.”
Trail’s next home game goes against Penticton on Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.