With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Trail Smoke Eaters are within striking distance of a playoff berth, but the road to the final four in the Interior division is a rough one.
The Smokies are coming off an 8-1 drubbing to the Warriors in West Kelowna Tuesday night, and there was a conspicuous absence of pucks on the ice in practice the following day.
“The message was pretty straightforward,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes. “If we’re not going to work in the games, we are going to in practice. Those are kind of old school tactics, and they might fall on deaf ears, but I think the skate was necessary. And we also had a pretty in-depth meeting and video session to really dissect what we look like on the ice, and what we’re trying to accomplish as a group.”
“There is so much at stake, and to go into that kind of a game and perform the way we did is definitely disappointing.”
The Smoke Eaters sit three points back of the Vernon Vipers for the fourth and final playoff berth, with a tough schedule down the stretch. All their remaining games are against Interior division rivals, starting with a home-and-home against the Penticton Vees this weekend.
“We haven’t seen them in a while, but one of the challenges of the group is that everyone’s getting better, and we were a pretty effective group in December, but seems like we’re not getting any traction, so are we going to show the kind of team we can be this weekend, regardless of the opponent and circumstances?”
The Vees lead the league with a 39-6-0-1 record, are ranked number two in the nation, and two wins away from clinching their fifth consecutive Interior division title. They have a talented line up starting with two of the BCHL’s top scorers in Scott Conway and Tyson Jost, and top-ranked defenceman Dante Fabbro. Jost and Fabbro missed the match against the Merritt Centennials on Wednesday to play in the CJHL’s Top Prospects game in Surrey, but will return to the line up against the Smoke Eaters Friday.
The Vees showed they are almost human Wednesday, losing an unlikely decision to the sixth place Centennials, as they blew a 4-3 lead in the final minute for a Cents’ 6-4 victory. Undoubtedly, Vees coach Fred Harbinson will have had a similar discussion with his players since the loss, and be ready for the Smoke Eaters tonight.
Heading into the final month of the season, the Smokies will enjoy home ice in seven of the 11 contests, but considering Trail has just one win in 12 matches against the Vees, Warriors, and Silverbacks this season, they will need to be at their best in order to catch the Snakes.
“We have to start playing good hockey again,” said Deschenes. “It has to be a high energy and high compete level. We can’t forget the fact, that who we’re going up against. If we don’t work as hard as we possibly can, the compete level, the intensity has to be there 100 per cent all the time in order to put ourselves in a position to win.”
The Smokies face Salmon Arm four times, Penticton three times, West Kelowna twice, and Merritt and Vernon once, with their final game against the Vipers on Feb. 27, in what Deschenes hopes will be a meaningful game.
“Three points in 11 games, seven at home, there’s a lot that can happen.”
Good news for Trail is that Ross Armour and Jake Kauppila will be back in the lineup, after missing the past three weeks with injuries.
Trail hosts the Vees on Saturday at the Cominco Arena with the face off at 7:30 p.m.