The Trail Smoke Eaters look to close the gap on the Vernon Vipers for the final playoff spot in the BCHL’s Interior division, when they return home to face off against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs tonight and the Wenatchee Wild Saturday.
With three games in hand on Vernon, the 11-17-0-0 Smokies lie six-points back of the fourth-place Vipers at 13-16-0-2, and this weekend’s matches are a prime opportunity for the Smokies to gain some ground as the Snakes play Penticton Vees Friday and a much improved Cowichan Valley Capitals team on Saturday.
“At home we’re strong, and I think we’ve had enough ups and downs on the road that I think it’s time to get back home and give a good 60 minute effort these two games, and we should like the results,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “If things play out in that way, we’re hopefully two-points out of a playoff spot by the end of the weekend.”
The Smokies dropped a 7-3 match to division rival West Kelowna Warriors on Tuesday, but a positive was the play of Nick Halloran who picked up his scoring pace with two goals and an assist, after tallying just two points in the previous eight games. The Draper, Utah native leads the Smoke Eaters with 12 goals and 25 points in 28 games.
“Nick and Ross (Armour) and Connor Brown-Maloski were our best line that game,” said Deschenes. “They’ve got good chemistry together, they move the puck well, they’ve got good awareness … You want to see how players respond with a little adversity, fair or unfair, depending on how they game went, so they just kept trucking along, gave it some energy. You want to try to leave a game feeling good about certain aspects of it and that was one of them.”
The 10-15-1-1 Bulldogs are in last place in the Island division, trailing Victoria by four points and are looking to make up ground on the Eagles for the final playoff spot.
“They play hard at home and I anticipate the same kind of intensity level, I think they’re pretty well coached, and are trending in a good direction. They’ve made a few moves so they’ve upgraded a little bit, and we have to be ready because they’ll have that same do-or-die attitude that we have.”
Alberni acquired 18-year-old Ryan Finnegan from the Merritt Centennials on Tuesday. The Tecumseh, Kan., native scored seven points in 22 games for the Cents, but has loads of potential and a Quinnipiac commitment under his belt. Alberni is coming off a 4-2 loss to Victoria on Saturday, but their latest win was a 10-5 victory over West Kelowna the week before.
“With this league, you don’t want to put money on any games, because you’ll lose big,” said Deschenes, emphasizing the parity and unpredictable outcomes across the league.
The Smoke Eaters bought out the last BCHL team to have a franchise in the U.S., the Belleville Ice Hawks in 1995. They will face off against the only other U.S. franchise to join the BCHL since then, when they take on Wenatchee on Saturday at the Cominco Arena.
The Wild are fast up front, strong defensively with good goaltending and the third least goals against in the league, but are coming off a pair of losses last weekend falling to Trail 4-2 at home and 4-3 to West Kelowna Thursday.
“It (Wenatchee) is one of those teams, where they move very well and are very much Penticton-esque. We just have to be ready and in our big rink, it’s going to cater to their game a little bit more, so we just have to be on our toes, and skate with them and push the pace.”
Wild goaltender Chase Perry, a fifth round Detroit Red Wing draft pick, signed a commitment to play for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in NCAA Division 1 earlier this week. The 19-year-old Minnesota native has a 2.43 goals against average and a .899 save percentage, and will likely get the start in net for the Wild. The Smokies chased Perry from the net after scoring twice on two shots in the win over the Wild in Wenatchee last Friday.
“It’s very important for our group when we do get the chances we have to finish, so that’s going to be key this weekend for sure.”
The puck drop for both games will be at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.
Smoke signals: Smokies defenceman Jeremy Lucchini is still undergoing concussion protocol and will miss the weekend games, while newly acquired forward Blaine Caton has practiced all week and will play his first game as a Smoke Eater on Friday.