Following a much-needed two-win weekend over the Surrey Eagles and Vernon Vipers, the Trail Smoke Eaters host the Langley Rivermen on Friday and the Coquitlam Express on Saturday.
With a heavy dose of Interior Division games on the horizon, including a home-and-home against the Penticton Vees next week, the upcoming matches are considered must-win games for the Smoke Eaters.
“Points-wise we have to win these games,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “And we have to find ways to get points against Vernon, Penticton, and Wenatchee. All these (games) have huge playoff implications.”
Trail (28-14-4-1) currently sits in fourth place in the Interior Division, five points behind Wenatchee, six back of Penticton and eight on Vernon, but have games in hand on both the Wild (1) and the Vipers (3).
The 21-15-10-2 Rivermen, meanwhile, are battling for top spot in their own division, and currently sit four points back of the first-place Prince George Spruce Kings.
After a good start, the Rivermen have been inconsistent in the new year going 3-6 in January, despite playing seven-of-nine contests at home last month. In their latest tilt, the Smoke Eaters beat the Rivermen 5-2 in Langley on Jan. 6, as the Rivermen embark on their one-and-only stop in Trail before facing the Wild in Wenatchee Saturday.
The Rivermen split a pair of games last weekend losing to the Chilliwack Chiefs 3-2 Saturday, after an important 4-1 win over the Spruce Kings Friday. Langley is led by hometown product and Denver commit Brendan Budy with 16 goals and 44 points in 39 games this season, and New Hampshire commit Angus Crookshank (17-17-34). Both Rivermen played for the gold-medal winning Team Canada West at the World Jr. A Challenge in December, along with Smoke Eaters Ross Armour and Seth Barton.
The Rivermen also signed goaltender Nic Tallarico after the Vancouver native and former Salmon Arm Silverback was released from the Surrey Eagles at the trade deadline. Tallarico boasts an impressive 11-3-0-1 record this season, with a 3.31 goals-against average, and a .900 save percentage. However, it’s doubtful he’ll usurp starter Braedon Fleming who has logged the most BCHL minutes this season with 41 starts, an 18-19-0-1 record, a 2.69 GAA, and .908 save percentage.
Notably, the Smoke Eaters’ goalie Adam Marcoux is second in games played, 38, and is 8-5-1 since joining Trail in early December, with a 2.70 GAA, and a .920 save percentage.
The Smokies lone addition at the Jan. 10 deadline has also paid dividends. Defenceman Connor Welsh scored a goal and assisted on another in the 7-4 win over Surrey, then counted his second goal as a Smokie Eater against Vernon. The Halifax native has the second most goals among the league’s d-men, nine, and 28 points on the season; in addition to his offensive prowess, the 20-year-old is solid defensively.
“He’s a player,” said Keith. “He makes great decisions, and we use him in all situations, and he also is a really good defender. He’s not a very big guy but he’s smart, and he makes up for it and he uses every bit of size to his advantage, and he has a great shot.”
On Saturday, the Smoke Eaters face the 13-30-1-3 Express, who currently sit in the bottom of the Mainland Division. However, the Express are young and can surprise a team that isn’t prepared or takes them too lightly. The Smokies eked out a 3-2 victory over Coquitlam in their Jan. 5 match up, and, in their last five games, the Express defeated both the Vernon Vipers and Nanaimo Clippers.
The puck drops at 7 p.m. tonight against the Rivermen and Saturday against the Express at the Cominco Arena.