It’s time for the Trail Smoke Eaters to make a move.
The Trail Smoke Eaters travel to Salmon Arm to face the Silverbacks for two games this weekend, a prime opportunity to climb up the Interior Division standings.
The Smoke Eaters trail the ‘Backs by just four points heading into the final month of the regular season, and will play Salmon Arm four times before the regular season is done on Feb. 23. The Vernon Vipers and Silverbacks have two games in hand on Trail, but they play a decidedly tougher schedule in the final month.
“It’s the biggest weekend of the year for us, right now,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Two games against a team that’s four points ahead of us, so either they’re going to jump up to a huge gap where we can’t catch them, or we might have a chance to jump two spots in the standings, so now we’re playing a different team in the first round.”
The Smoke Eaters are coming off an encouraging 4-3 shoot-out win over the Wenatchee Wild, and another indication, as they have shown at various times throughout the season, that they are capable of not just playing with but beating the top teams. Now that the Trail roster is set and relatively healthy, and with six straight home games to kick off February, the team is in position to create momentum heading into the playoffs.
“Our group is coming together at the right time,” said Tambellini. “We’re starting to get a healthy group back and now we’re starting to see that when our group plays a certain way, the impact we can have on a hockey game.”
Trail’s veteran players provided offence at key times on Saturday, with Chase Stevenson kickstarting the Smoke Eaters comeback with an inspired rush and creative set-up, and after a tenacious forecheck, Mack Byers tied the game, setting the stage for rookie phenom Kent Johnson in the shootout.
Stevenson, a New Hampshire commit, has 14 points in the last 10 games, and is going to be relied on, along with Byers, Carter Jones, Braeden Tuck, Tyler Ghirardosi et al, to put up numbers down the stretch if Trail is to make a move.
“There’s a reason we went out and paid the price to get him (Stevenson),” said Tambellini. “He’s the most dominant player we have on our team, and talk about a game breaker, this guy wants to be a game-changer every time he steps over the boards.”
Productivity requires teamwork from all five guys on the ice, and on Friday the Smokies offence took the night off in a 6-2 loss to the Wild. Yet, rather than throw in the towel, the Smokies came out determined on Saturday, and with solid play from goalie Adam Marcoux, came back from a two-goal deficit to win the game.
“We’re at the point with our group now, where it’s not about individuals, it’s about team success,” said Tambellini. “And we really made an impact on Saturday morning, we talked about the division we’re in, the battle we’re in, the young team we have right now … and if we can get guys to buy-in to the importance of the group and how that will help you individually going forward you can really make strides, and when people see the benefit of 23 guys pulling the same rope, it goes a long way.”
The addition of goalie Donovan Buskey also gives the Smokies the option of resting Marcoux, something they didn’t have prior to Jan. 10. And, if the former WHL goaltender can get hot, he has the ability to play his way into a full-time position.
“We know that Donovan’s a guy that can win us hockey games, and he’s going to give us a chance every time he’s in the net.”
Salmon Arm, 21-19-4-1, has struggled this month, losing 2-of-3 on an Island road trip, falling to Cowichan and Alberni, but beating the Nanaimo Clippers, 4-0. In January, the Silverbacks are 2-5-0-1, giving the Smokies a prime opportunity to make up ground on the fifth-place team. Trail is 3-2-0-1 this month, and can draw even with Salmon Arm with a pair of wins on the weekend.
With a month to play in the regular season, the standings are too close to project any certain match ups. Penticton leads Merritt by five points, and Wenatchee by six. West Kelowna holds down fourth place and has solidified their playoff berth. With wins over Salmon Arm, Trail may even challenge the Warriors, a team that the Smokies play two more times in February, and lead the Smoke Eaters by eight points. A move into fourth or fifth would be better than the seventh place they currently hold down and staring at a first-round match up with Penticton, Merritt, or Wenatchee.
With 11 games to go (four vs Salmon Arm, two against West Kelowna and Merritt, and one vs Vernon, Penticton and Langley), and Trail owning a much friendlier schedule than Salmon Arm or Vernon, winning seven or eight of those contests is not beyond the realm of possibility and with a head-of-steam entering the playoffs, well, you never know. . .