The real season has arrived for the Trail Smoke Eaters as they get ready to drop the puck tonight on a first round BCHL playoff tilt against the fifth seed West Kelowna Warriors.
The Smokies won the season series 4-2 against the Warriors, but West K has an historic edge winning all three playoff series the teams played against each other from 2009-11, and Smoke Eaters coach Cam Keith isn’t about to take them lightly.
“We’re excited about playing West Kelowna, but at the same time they played us very tough this year,” said Keith. “We won the series but there was a couple games that could have gone either way. They’re also a very improved team, they got back players that had long-term injuries, that will be healthy for playoffs … I don’t think their record fully depicts the type of team they are so it’s going to be a tough first-round match up.”
The Smoke Eaters rode a year-long rollercoaster that started with a huge upside winning 19 games in the first half, but then injury and absence of Trail’s top players precipitated a December slump that was demoralizing for the players, and following a strong January, the team came up against a brutal road trip and more adversity.
“I don’t think anyone including myself was expecting us to have the start we had,” said Keith. “And then when you go into a slide like we did it was hard to fully recover from it … But our goal was to have home-ice advantage in the first round, and obviously we would have liked to finish higher in the standings but you look at some of the accomplishments some of these kids had with Seth Barton, Levi Glasman, Tyler Ghirardosi – a lot of kids made some really big strides, and Kale (Howarth) and Ross Armour even with the number of missed games, they still had successful years.”
Armour finished ninth in BCHL scoring with 21 goals and 63 points in 51 games, while Howarth tallied 24 goals and 61 points in just 44 games for the second best points/game average (1.39) in the league. Rookies Glasman (22-44-66), Carter Jones (15-30-45), and Ghirardosi (19-21-40) were all top-10 scorers among BCHL rookies and Seth Barton second among rookie defenceman with 33 points in 49 games.
But playoffs are different from the regular-season grind, preparation becomes a practice in exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses, with intensity and compete levels ramped way up.
“It’s more of a science, rather than during the season you focus more on yourself, what our weaknesses are and what we need to improve,” said Keith. “But at this time of year, the kids know what makes us successful … so there’s more of an emphasis of focusing on our opponent and their particular strengths and weaknesses.”
The Warriors bring a heavy offensive load of their own to the series with seven skaters scoring more than 39 points. The January deadline acquisition of Ryan Steele, who contributed 25 points in 18 games, gave the team added firepower, along with the team’s top forwards Chase Dubois, Jared Marino, R.J. Murphy, and Parm Dhaliwal.
Like the Smoke Eaters, the Warriors also slumped in February going 4-5-0-1 to finish the season, but played tough defensively in it’s 2-1 win over Merritt last week, a game that clinched the fifth seed for the Warriors.
For the Smoke Eaters, who were 4-7 in February, the first round playoff will be a telling test. Keith was hoping the team would finish on a high note but with six of their last nine games against the BCHL’s top teams, combined with a lengthy Prince George-Wenatchee road trip, success was hard to come by.
“We’ve been able to rebound in the past, so I think the true test now is getting back, building our confidence in playoffs, and finding that ultimate full-team game where we’re rolling.”
The Warriors defeated the Smoke Eaters three games to none in a best-of-five series in 2009 before a five-game series win in 2010. West Kelowna went on to take a seven-game series over Trail in 2011 before their meeting this season.
There’s no doubt about it, the Smokies are due, and with the experience gained from last season’s playoff run, combined with a healthy roster and solid goaltending, this year’s run should yield positive results.
“That’s one advantage we have this year to last year’s team,” said Keith. “I think we have a good enough base, where our older guys if they see some of our younger guys kind of fading away, they can pull them back in, whereas no one had that experience before … And for me too, it was my first playoff experience as a coach, and I was a little intimidated going up against Vernon for the first time to be honest with you, and I’ve learned a lot from that experience as well.”
The Smokies host Game 1 of the best-of-seven playoff against the West Kelowna Warriors on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.