The Trail Smoke Eaters were in tough playing their final two games of the season against a team hungry for first place in the Interior division.
The West Kelowna Warriors did what they had to do to win the division title with 6-4 and 8-3 wins over the Smoke Eaters on Friday and Saturday, but the Penticton Vees pulled out their third straight division title with a 3-2 overtime win against the Salmon Arm SilverBacks in the final regular season game Saturday.
Both the Vees and Warriors ended up atop the Interior division standings with 78 points, but the Vees took first place by virtue of one more victory, 36, than the Warriors.
The Vees beat the SilverBacks on Friday 3-1 before the overtime win propelled them to the number one seed. The Backs had success against the Vees early in the season and were in the thick of a playoff hunt until they went on an 0-10 skid to end the year. Instead, the Merritt Centennials will take the fourth seed in the division winning their final three games to finish with 67 points and will face the Vees in the first round, while the Vernon Vipers nabbed third spot with 70 points and will play the Warriors in round one.
The Smokies fought hard in the first match Friday, but the Warriors, keen on seizing first place, were merciless in the second match in West Kelowna Saturday firing 61 shots at Smokie goalie Dustin Nikkel for the 8-3 victory.
West K decided the game in the first period, jumping out to a 4-0 lead on goals from Tyson Dallman, Liam Blackburn, Matt Arnholt, and Carl Hesler. Kylar Hope would make it 5-0 before Trail’s Jake Lucchini got the Smokies on the board with assists from Bryan Basilico and Scott Davidson.
But David Pope would net a pair and Jason Cotton another with 70 seconds to go in the middle frame to put the Warriors up 8-1. The Smokies kept the Warriors off the board in the third, and would score twice on goals from Lucchini, his second of the night, and Nathan Browne.
In Friday’s game, the Warriors jumped out to a 5-1 second-period lead, but the Smokies showed resilience, and battled back to make it a closer 6-4 final. Lucchini scored once and added two assists and was named the game’s third star, while Brandon Volpe netted a pair of goals for the Smokies, and Davidson added a single marker.
Despite the wins, Warrior head-coach Rylan Ferster was concerned about the team’s goals against going into the playoffs.
“We certainly are going to have to shore up in our own end a little bit,” Ferster said on the team’s website. “We gave up four last night and three tonight and I think if you’re giving up any more than three in any playoff game you’re probably not going to be winning too many. You can’t be expecting to score five and six in the playoffs so the defensive side of the game will be a focus for us.”
The Smokies’ line of Davidson, Basilico, and Jesse Knowler has been nothing short of spectacular in the final 10 games of the season. Each has virtually doubled their season output over that period with Basilico adding 16 points, and Knowler 14, including a season high five-point night against the Vernon Vipers in the 6-5 victory Wednesday.
Davidson has been on fire, after a slow start, the Trail native netted 10 goals and seven assist in his last nine games to top the Smokies in scoring with 16-19-35. Lucchini has also been a bright spot in the Smokies lineup climbing into fourth spot in Smokies scoring with 8-18-26, an 18 point improvement from last season’s totals.
“There are definitely some players that are taking advantage of it (extra ice time) and rising to the occasion,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “That whole line has been playing really well.”
It was a season where little went right for the Smokies. After a decent start initially, the team struggled, and coach Bill Birks was replaced by Nick Deschenes.
“I am probably learning a bit of a lesson here,” said Deschenes. “I came on with about 40 games to go, but where the team was at there wasn’t really any hope. I mean call it an experiment, what I did with Grand Forks was a bit of a youth movement and trying to identify players and give them an opportunity now so when next year rolls around we’re in good shape.”
Deschenes admits that the team may have not reached its expectations, but a number of factors contributed including the number of trades, players requesting trades, as well as season ending injuries. Still with one of the youngest teams in the league, the Smoke Eater coach is optimistic.
“I think if you look beneath the core there’s definitely been a bit of a change in culture and I think a work ethic that’s been established so moving forward we still need a lot of pieces to the puzzle but in a direction I’m happy with.”
“It’s an ongoing process, but I think there are players who have bought in, and are really committed and at the end of the day that’s the key ingredient – the committment, the accountability and the work ethic.”
Deschenes will be keeping tabs on all the players over the summer, and expects hard work and dedication throughout the offseason.
“When you have youth, to progress you need to get physically stronger, faster, while developing your skills, and there’s definitely a maturity and experience factor that kicks in for the following season.
Just who will return next year, Deschenes says it’s too early to comment on, but rather will wait-and-see. Trail has been plagued with carded veteran players not returning to the team the following season. Putting too much expectations on returning players may have been the undoing of this year’s team after finishing a relatively successful campaign in 2012.
“The off-season is going to be critical for a lot of players, and it’s going to be critical for our organization. My job is to ice the best team possible . . . we’re recruiting North America basically to find the right players. It’s going to be a busy offseason just as it was a busy inseason.”