Following a six-year drought, Trail Smoke Eater fans will be thirsty for playoff action, as the Smokies begin its playoff drive tonight at the Cominco Arena against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
Trail head coach and GM Cam Keith led a relatively new and unknown entity to the playoffs in his first year at the helm, but isn’t about to take the division’s sixth-seed opponent lightly. The Silverbacks have momentum on their side, winning their last five games that included a 5-1 victory over division-leader Penticton Vees, and wins over the Merritt Centennials and West Kelowna Warriors in the final week of the season.
“It worries me a lot,” said Keith. “They’re a team that has the right pieces in the right spots. They have really good goaltending, they have strong experienced defencemen on the back end, and a really good top line. When you mix in all that youth, sometimes it’s the right mixture of hunger and kids that want to prove they belong in this league.”
Trail went 3-5-1-1 in the month of February with a severely depleted lineup, but did enough to lock down third place. A 3-1 home-victory against the Vernon Vipers a week ago and character-defining matches against the league’s top teams, despite close losses, were positive outcomes for the orange and black. Rookies like Ryan Moon, Corbyn Chabot, Andre Ghantous, and Braeden Tuck stepped up to fill the void left by Ross Armour, Kale Howarth, and Josh Laframboise, as well, affiliate players from Beaver Valley and Creston performed beyond expectations.
“We’re so happy with how some of our younger cast of players and our junior B affiliate kids, there has to be a lot of credit going to the kids in Beaver Valley,” said Keith. “I don’t think if they didn’t come up and play the way they did, that we’d get third place. It’s amazing those kids were able to come from Jr. B and step into the BCHL and not only look the part, but actually help us win games.”
The Smokies will have Armour and Mitch Stapley healthy and ready to go for Game 1, with Laframboise, Howarth, Kyle Chernenkoff, and Tyson Slater having returned to action last week.
With it’s top lines intact and a healthy backend, it will be a confident Smoke Eaters team heading into Game 1 tonight. The line of Howarth, Luke Santerno, and Laframboise was dominant all season and one of the best lines in the league until injury sidelined Howarth, and Laframboise missed four games due to suspension. Santerno still finished sixth in the league in goals scored and 15th in points, and the trio will be depended upon to lead the Smokies on the scoreboard.
Add Armour to the mix with Connor Brown-Maloski, and Mitch Barker and the Smokies have a skilled and effective second-line scoring punch. Brown-Maloski averaged more than a point-per-game, quietly netting 54 points this season, third best on the Smoke Eaters. Armour was also headed in that direction, averaging 1.14 points-per-game until injury took him out the last two months, missing 23 games. With the intensity and hard work of Spencer McLean, Blaine Caton and Andre Ghantous, the Smokies have a triple scoring threat and very effective checking line. With the emergence of Chabot, Moon and Tuck, the Smokies also have options in providing a very dangerous fourth line, with interchangeable components throughout the lineup.
The team’s defence gained in size and stature this season with the addition of Ethan Martini, Ryan Warner, Kyle Chernenkoff, and Carter Cochrane, and with the defensive corps healthy for the first time all season, the return of talented D-men Stapley, Jeremy Lucchini, and Slater from injury will be a definite asset in the frantic pace of playoff hockey.
The Smoke Eaters will ride goaltender Linden Marshall (15-11-0-1) into the playoff. The RPI commit has been stellar the second half of the season, and played his way into the starting role with 14 starts in the final 20 games with a 2.86 goals against average and .917 save percentage, seventh best in the BCHL.
Salmon Arm, meanwhile, turned its season around after an 11-2 loss to the Langley Rivermen on Feb. 4, and have been on fire ever since, losing just twice in its remaining nine games.
“Without going too deep into it, we did have an aha moment after the game in Langley when we got blown out,” Silverbacks head coach Misko Antisin told the Salmon Arm Observer. “It’s kind of more internal, but I will say we opened our eyes and our hearts and our minds. We had a great chat after the 11-2 loss and that’s the moment I can say we really bonded together.”
Salmon Arm is led by Carson Bolduc and Elijah Barriga up front with 20-year-old Ryley Booth anchoring a young but talented blue line. Perhaps the Silverbacks greatest asset is the goaltending tandem of Nic Tallarico and Trevin Kolowski who developed a penchant for stealing games for the Silverbacks. Tallarico earned two shutouts and boasts a .946 save percentage in his last six games, while Kolowski allowed just two goals in his final three matches, that included a 35 save performance in the 5-1 victory over Penticton.
“With goalies like that, you just have to get bodies in front, try to take away their line of sight,” said Keith. “If you shoot a lot of pucks from outside with no traffic, it’s just going to build their confidence, so we have to pay a little more attention to detail, so when we do have shots we have guys in front, so when there are rebounds we can get that second chance opportunity.”
The Smoke Eaters enjoyed the season-series edge with four wins, two losses and a tie with the Silverbacks, but it’s a new season, where anything can and usually does happen.
“The scariest teams are the ones that enter the playoffs with a lot of momentum,” said Keith. “So we’re going to have to prepare for a really good series. They’re only four points back of us in the standings, the games are going to be close.”
The puck drop for tonight’s game goes at 7:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Cominco Arena.