The Trail Smoke Eaters next five games could be the most pivotal in its efforts to make the playoffs this season.
The Smokies are coming off a pair of 6-3 losses to Surrey and Merrit on the weekend, and will play five games in a row against interdivisional rivals, including three against Salmon Arm Silverbacks, and one each against Vernon Vipers and West Kelowna Warriors.
The Smokies currently lead the Vipers by two points in the Interior division and trail the Silverbacks by four points for the final playoff spot.
“I still believe 100 per cent we can get in – there is no doubt in my mind, we’ve got the personnel here we just got to A: get healthy, and B: get some steady goaltending,” said Smoke Eaters coach Bill Birks.
With the trade deadline looming on Thursday, the Smoke Eaters may be looking for another veteran defenceman as it sprints for the finish, but with the divisions so tight, good players may prove a difficult commodity.
“There’s lots of calls in and out . . . but everything is so tight, and the stuff that is out there they want everything from you-know-what to my kid – it’s ridiculous.”
Despite an extended break, the Smokies are still hobbled by injury as five regulars did not dress for the match against the Centennials on Saturday, including top scorers Brent Baltus and Garrett McMullen.
Baltus won’t play against Vernon Wednesday but McMullen should be back in the lineup. Bennett Hambrook and Shane Poulsen are questionable, and after an ongoing injury problem, Bryce Knapp is done for the season, says Birks.
“It was nothing major, it wasn’t a dirty play, he just got hit,” says Birks.
Tied in both games heading into the third, the Smokies gave up four third period goals to Surrey Friday, and three to Merritt Saturday to start the New Year on a sour note.
Merritt was fresh off a big 4-2 win over the Penticton Vees on Friday, and their momentum carried them to victory against Trail the next night.
The Cent’s Richard Sabourin broke a 3-3 tie nine minutes into the third period to count the winning goal as the Centennials outshot the Smokies 30-23 in an important inter-divisional game.
Sam Johnson started the scoring for Merritt, but the Smokies would reply when Scott Davidson deflected a Djordje Leposavic shot past Cent’s goalie Tyler Steele. Trail then took a 2-1 lead on Luke Sandler’s 16th of the season, but Merritt tied it on a Derek Huisman goal and grabbed a 3-2 lead late in the first when Jeff Wight beat goalie Lyndon Stanwood.
Trail worked hard in the middle frame and Sandler would be rewarded again as he banged in his second of the night to tie the game at three.
But Merritt dominated in the third period outshooting the Smokies 10-5 and adding insurance markers from Sebastian Pare and Huisman.
Sandler had a three-point night for the Smoke Eaters with two goals and an assist.