You cannot say enough about the KIJHL schedule maker’s prescience. The, by far, most competitive division in the league, the local Neil Murdoch division, will feature virtually a three-top-team, home-and-home round robin over the final two weeks of the season.
The Nelson Leafs have been the division’s and the league’s top team all season, and still hold that spot. The Castlegar Rebels and Beaver Valley Nitehawks have moved close and are surging. Those three teams will play each other twice over the last fortnight of the regular season and the results will matter big time.
Whichever squad holds first when the ice shavings settle on Feb. 16 will play Spokane, which sits more than 30 points behind the least of the leaders with fewer than half the points of third place Beaver Valley, in the first round of the division playoffs. The other two will face each other.
It can be argued that the intense Nelson – Castlegar series in last year’s first round took just enough out of the Rebels to give Beaver Valley the slight edge they needed to slip past Castlegar in the division finals – their biggest hurdle on the way to the KIJHL championship.
That makes those final two weeks of this regular season seem enormous, as the winner of the Murdoch group will be heavily favoured to take the league title again.
The Murdoch division edge in quality is obvious, only one other team in the league could, on points to date, even get near the top three there. A few have better goals-against totals than the Nitehawks, due to some early season blowouts of Beaver Valley, but no non-Murdoch team can match Beaver Valley’s firepower, or that of the second and third highest scoring KIJHL clubs – Nelson and Castlegar.
So, fans in the three West Kootenay towns involved should plan to be involved. It is nearly time for playoff intensity already, even with three weeks of the regular season to go and most playoff-round groupings about decided.
Three towns, three teams, three credible bandwagons upon which to climb. Get aboard, folks.
• As for the Smoke Eaters. Oh, well.
After last weekend it will take a miraculous run of play for the Smokies to threaten for the fourth and final post season spot in the Interior Division of the BCHL. Trail needed four points out of Salmon Arm and got one and there is little about the remainder of their schedule that suggests the Smokies can get anywhere near to running the table – which is almost what they need to do.
It wasn’t that Trail played badly, they played as well in most areas of the game as Salmon Arm, but they had to win the points battle, 4-0, and they finished, 1-4.
There are hopeful signs for next year, in particular some very young, very talented local kids on the roster, and the club has freedom to use the rest of the year auditioning talent – if they can find it given playoff pressures in other leagues.
AND there is the fact that Smoke Eater games have been very entertaining, so it is still worthwhile to show up at the local rink, where Trail will play five of the six games on their February schedule and seven of their last nine overall.
Ask around, many season ticket holders will have unused ducats that will become worthless at season’s end and several local businesses have cut-rate deals on tickets. It is good value for little money, if you are a hockey fan, and will get you away from what I hear are already-frustrating tube games.