The Trail Smoke Eaters clinched a playoff spot, and now look to make their way up the standings with two Interior Division games this weekend.
The Smokies 5-4 victory over the Merritt Centennials on Saturday and a Coquitlam Express loss on Friday guaranteed Trail a spot in the Interior Division playoffs with just 15 games remaining and a 30 point lead on the Express – a Mainland Division team that would cross over for the eighth playoff spot in the Interior.
The fourth-place Smokies will face-off against an improved West Kelowna Warriors tonight at home before making the trip back to Penticton Saturday in an effort to catch up with the Vees, who lead Trail by just one point in the division standings.
“All the teams got better (at the trade deadline), basically, even Salmon Arm didn’t sell any of their parts so it’s going to be whoever comes out and is playing the healthiest and winning those head-to-head games are going to be huge,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “Especially with us, playing Penticton three more times, and Wenatchee twice in their rink and Vernon twice. All those games are so big.”
Trail equalled their total wins, 26, from last season with the victory over the Centennials on Saturday, and look to surpass that total with a win over the Warriors. Trail has beaten the West K in 4-of-5 matches this campaign, and will play their final tilt tonight.
The Warriors boosted their offence at the trade deadline with the addition of 20-year-old forward Ryan Steele from the Alberni Bulldogs. But inconsistency has plagued the Warriors, beating the Wenatchee Wild in overtime 5-4 at home last Friday, before losing in a 6-0 shutout in Wenatchee on Saturday, and a 5-0 loss to Vernon on Sunday to remain in fifth-place in the Interior.
Trail’s game against Penticton, Saturday, may be a preview of potential playoff scenarios, as the Vees and Smokies are 1-1-1 this season, following a 2-2 tie last week.
“This game against Penticton is absolutely huge. It has playoff implications already, that’s how tight the standings are.”
Penticton is unbeaten in 2018, and got better at the deadline. The Vees added 20-year-old WHL forward Wyatt Sloboshan and former Vees defenceman James Miller, 19, who left the University of New Hampshire to rejoin Penticton down the stretch.
The five-foot-10 Sloboshan, a Vanscoy, Sask. product, spent the last three and a half seasons in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades, Spokane Chiefs and Regina Pats. Over his 219-game WHL career, Sloboshan recorded 44 goals and 77 assists.
But the Smoke Eaters have also turned a corner, and not lost a game in regulation since Christmas with six wins, a tie, and an overtime loss. Trail added a key component at the trade deadline in defenceman Connor Welsh, who has stepped in and solidified the back end.
“He’s been unreal,” said Keith. “He’s actually exceeded my expectations as far as how good he can defend, how tough he plays, and blocks shots … It’s his experience, he calms things down, and moves the puck very well.”
Trail was without defencemen Seth Barton (illness) and Kyle Chernenkoff last weekend, as well as forward Ryan Murphy (injury), so the addition of Welsh was timely.
Trail’s leading scorers Kale Howarth, Ross Armour, and Levi Glasman were instrumental in the win over Merritt with six points between them, but it was the play of Carter Jones and Braeden Tuck that really impressed the Smokies coach.
“Jones and Tuck, those kids played unreal,” said Keith. “Carter’s goal against Penticton was an absolutely highlight reel goal.”
Jones then scored his 14th goal of the season early against the Cents, then made a great move to set up Tuck for the game winner.
Yet, the true value of a player doesn’t always show up on the score sheet. It’s how they play without the puck and when shorthanded that often makes the biggest difference.
“Braeden Tuck had a huge block when they pulled their goalie at the end of the game,” said Keith. “Those kids are the ones that are really coming out right now, and still showing that they are still go-to guys even though Armour and Howarth are back … But everyone contributed so it was good to see.”
Of Trail’s 15 remaining games, 11 are against division rivals, eight are on the road, with seven critical games against league leading Vernon, Wenatchee, and Penticton. Every point is important.
“Especially on the road,” said Keith. “We have to play Penticton twice and Wenatchee twice, so they have the capability of focusing on and shutting down Howarth and Armour, so we need to find offence from different areas if we’re going to be a team that competes with those top three teams – we need that secondary scoring.”
The Smoke Eaters should have all components back in the line up this weekend. The puck drop for Friday’s game against the Warriors goes at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.