The Trail Smoke Eaters hope to give the Nanaimo Clippers a rude welcoming when the BCHL’s Island division team docks their ship at the Cominco Arena tonight.
The Clippers are 11-7-0-0 this season and sit in second place, a point behind the Cowichan Valley Capitals in Island division hierarchy.
“Their 20-year-olds are definitely a strong group and I think they’ve added some pretty good pieces,” said Trail coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “They’ve been kind of hot and cold but they’re slowly separating themselves from that pack.”
Nanaimo is coming off a split with Alberni Valley last weekend, and their stop in Trail is the first of a three-game road swing through the Interior division, as they’ll face Penticton Vees on Saturday and West Kelowna Warriors on Sunday.
“It’s tough,” Clippers goalie, Jonathan Reinhart told the Nanaimo News Bulletin. “It’s long bus rides and you’re not in your normal environment; it makes it difficult. But we kind of just have to bear down and, if we have to, grind out three games.”
Reinhart has seen the majority of the action for the Clips, registering nine wins in 13 starts, a 2.61 goals against average, and a .915 save percentage.
Trail’s offensive output, meanwhile, has been inconsistent this season. The Smoke Eaters have scored five or more goals five times, while scoring two or less in eight matches. The Smokies struck for 10 goals in two games against Merritt two weeks ago, but most recently tallied just three goals on 91 shots in a pair of losses against Vernon and Penticton last weekend.
“It is frustrating,” said Smokies assistant captain Kurt Black. “I think we need to come together as a team and try to figure this out, but we do have a good team here for sure.”
Trail has four very capable lines, and scoring production is spread relatively evenly throughout with seven players in double digits. Trail’s top scorer, Nick Halloran, has seven goals and 17 points, compared to Sheldon Rempal for Nanaimo with 16 goals and 36 points. However, much of the Clippers’ offensive production comes from one basket. Nanaimo has just four skaters with double-digit points, although, three of those players are in the top-10 in league scoring. Clarkson commit Rempal, former OHLer Matt Hoover (15-11-26), and Quebec native Devin Brosseau (7-17-24) have combined for 38 goals in 18 games, for over half the team’s total output of 71.
“I think they are a team we can take advantage of,” said Black. “They have a good first line but if we limit that, I think we have a good chance. Use our speed, get shots on net, and just bear down.”
The Clippers have scored 20 more goals than the Smokies this year, albeit in an arguably weaker division. Still, Trail will have to find a way to improve their goal-to-shot ratio if they hope to vie for a playoff spot in March.
“We just have to get shots through from the point, and bearing down on our chances in front would be big,” said Black. “I think we all have talent, we just have to bring it every game.”
Black, a 20-year-old, three-year BCHL veteran, has stepped up as one of the leaders on the Smokies since coming over from the Chilliwack Chiefs this summer as the last piece of the Scott Davidson trade. Black had a great start with the Smokies, netting seven points in four games, and after an eight game pointless streak, he is back on track with four points in his last five matches. The Winfield native also played for the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in 2012-13 and is happy to be back in Greater Trail.
“I had a good experience in Junior B, so it’s good to be back in Trail, the fans, I love it here and it’s a good hockey town.”
The Smoke Eaters will hit the road for a Saturday night tilt in Merritt to play the Centennials. The Smokies have taken 2-of-3 from the Cents this year, including a 5-4 victory the last time they met in Merritt, in which the Smokies were down 4-1 in the third period, but made a dramatic comeback to win it in overtime.
The game is in ‘must win’ territory for a Smoke Eater team that trails Merritt by one point in the Interior division standings, and is seven back of Vernon for the final playoff spot.
“We think we have a group here, based on what we’ve seen in our division, that can be competitive and can fight for a playoff spot,” said Deshenes. “Every game we play, we have to try to come up with two points, it doesn’t matter who we are playing.”
Smoke signals: Show your support in fighting cancer by wearing yellow to tonight’s game and help the Smokies raise funds by donating to the Smokies Growvember campaign. Go to convio.cancer.ca/goto/trailsmokeeaters2015. Fans 12-and-under get in for a toonie, with proceeds going to the Cancer Society.