Smoke Eaters cling to playoff hopes

The Trail Smoke Eaters are still in a hunt for an Interior division playoff spot with just four games to play.

The BCHL season is winding down, but thanks to the futility of the Vernon Vipers, the Trail Smoke Eaters are still in a hunt for an Interior division playoff spot with just four games to play.

Trail has played one game, a loss to the Penticton Vees Saturday, since the firing of coach and GM Nick Deschenes last week, a move that everyone hopes will motivate the team in its final, desperate push for a playoff berth.

“Any time a decision like that is made at the end of the year, it’s a decision that you don’t expect,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Craig Clare. “Obviously seeing the way things have gone since Christmas, you look back and it doesn’t come as a total shock … I know the intent was to try to get a little spark, to try to get this team into the playoffs.”

Like the Smokies, Vernon has lost four straight games including a pair of matches this week to the West Kelowna Warriors. The Vipers sit five points up on the Smoke Eaters for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Interior division, with games against the Warriors and Mainland division leading Chilliwack Chiefs tonight and Saturday.

Trail, meanwhile, hosts the Merritt Centennials this evening, who are also in the thick of a playoff hunt, three points up on Trail, with their final games against Alberni Valley, Penticton and Wenatchee.

Conceivably, if the Smokies win out this week, they could catch the Cents and Vipers, and be poised for a playoff berth with their final match of the season against Vernon on Feb. 27.

“That’s been the message that despite our lack of success from Christmas, for whatever reason, we are still in the mix to get into the playoffs,” said Clare. “I like our chances if we can take care of our own business, and that’s the first game on Friday and put a little pressure on Vernon going forward. Basically our mentality is we have to win every game we got.”

The Smokies have also been without leading scorer Nick Halloran, assistant captain Cooper Leitch, and explosive forward Kyle Star. Clare expects Halloran and Leitch back in the line up tonight, however, Star will likely sit out the weekend games.

The transition from losing your head coach and GM can be a difficult one, but assistants Barry Zanier, Clare, and Curtis Toneff are adapting and meeting each challenge as it comes.

“We have to change our schedules around a little bit to support the team, and Curtis he’s putting in long days, and he has even when Nick was here, so throughout the day the team is taken care of,” said Clare. “We’re excited for the challenge and obviously it’s disappointing to lose a coach, and a friend at the same time, but as happened before with this team, you have to move forward and try to make the program better.”

As for the Smoke Eater players, Clare is confident that the team will step up and be accountable. The Smokies had a solid effort against the Vees on the weekend, and led 2-1 heading into the third period, before Penticton came back to win it 5-2.

“There was that initial shock early on, but I think looking at the standings, and looking at the challenge with the move that was made, the rest of the season is really on the players. It’s their team now, and they need to rise to the occasion . . . But the energy has been high at practice, we try to make sure its fun coming to the rink and providing a positive environment to play their best in the last four games we got.”

Smokies president Tom Gawryletz said the decision to dismiss Deschenes was a direct result of the team’s abysmal record in the new year, and the coach’s communication issues with the players and executive. He also confirmed that the Smoke Eaters will be on the look out for a permanent replacement for Deschenes once his contract expires in March.

“We’ll wait until the season ends, I mean everybody is under contract right now, and we can’t talk to anyone anyhow unless they approach us,” said Gawryletz. “We have two guys in mind that we would like and rumour has it they will come so once their seasons are done we’ll probably talk to those two. Both have tons of experience.”

The Smoke Eaters host Merritt tonight with the puck drop at 7:30 p.m. Trail travels to Salmon Arm Saturday to play the Silverbacks in a home-and-home with a return to the Cominco Arena Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.