The playoffs have yet to begin, but for the Trail Smoke Eaters, their remaining four games will have a palpable postseason feel.
Trail has clinched a playoff berth for the first time in seven years, but is battling the West Kelowna Warriors and Merritt Centennials for third place in the Interior Division standings, with home-ice advantage for the opening round of the BCHL playoffs up for grabs, as the Smoke Eaters play the Centennials in a crucial home-and-home series this weekend.
“Especially with the energy and the amount of crowd support we’ve had in Trail, I think it’s immensely important that the first round, we have that home-ice advantage for those first two games is crucial,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith.
Despite losing three games to Penticton and Wenatchee this past week, with six of Trail’s starting skaters in the stands, the Smoke Eaters didn’t lose any ground to Merritt. The Cents suffered losses to Cowichan Valley, Victoria, and Chilliwack on an Island and Mainland swing to remain two points back of the Smokies, while West K is tied with Trail with 54 points following a 4-3 win over Salmon Arm on Wednesday, and have a game in hand.
Trail and West Kelowna are even in their season series each winning three games, with the Smokies taking their most recent match on Dec. 30, 4-0. Trail beat Merritt 5-3 the last time the two teams met on Jan. 25 in Merritt, but the Centennials had Trail’s number early in the season, winning all four of their previous meetings.
“The last time we beat them, they had a different lineup,” said Keith. “(Tyler) Ward and (Michael) Regush were at the prospects game. They’re both back and fully healthy so it’s going to be a challenge roster-wise; they have a lot of offensive talent, a well-balanced team, good goaltending. But at this time of year it’s not really about your roster, it’s how well you play, and how bad you want it.”
The Smokies, however, will ice just three lines due to injury, and will not have access to the KIJHL’s Beaver Valley Nitehawks APs, a team that is also decimated by injury and playing the Kimberley Dynamiters in Fruitvale tonight with a short bench.
“Unfortunately, we’re really short-staffed right now but you kind of have to put excuses out the door, and just play with what you have,” said Keith. “We’re not going to have any APs, we’re going to have nine forwards. That’s all we got, everyone is playing … but a lot of games you use just three lines anyways so we’re not going to use that as a crutch.”
The Interior Division’s third seed will play the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in the first round, while the fourth and fifth seeds face off in the other first round matchup. The top-two seeds Penticton and Vernon earn a first-round bye.
The Smokies roster is seriously compromised by injuries, particularly on the blue line with Mitch Stapley out since Jan. 6, and Tyson Slater, Jan. 7, while Kyle Chernenkoff sat out the last three games with an upper body injury. However, there is a glimmer of hope with Slater and Chernenkoff expected to return to action this weekend.
Forward Josh Laframboise is serving one more game of a four-game suspension, Kale Howarth is out for this weekend and day-to-day next week with an upper body injury, while Ross Armour and Stapley aren’t expected back until playoffs.
On the upside, the injuries have tested the younger Smoke Eater players, and Keith likes the way they have responded.
“Our younger kids they have that confidence they can play those minutes and contribute. We were playing the two best teams in our league respectively, and it could have gone either way both games, so that is huge confidence builder for our secondary scoring – if you want to call it that – because right now they are no longer secondary, everyone needs to contribute now.”
The Centennials visit Trail tonight with the puck drop at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.