The Trail Smoke Eaters enter the Snake Pit tonight to continue their quest for the Fred Page Cup, as the Smokies travel to Vernon to open the Interior Division semifinal series against the Vipers.
Vernon and Trail split their final two games of the season that included a 3-1 home victory for Trail, and if the intensity of those two matches are any indication, it should be a fast and physical semifinal series.
“It’s a little bit different preparation,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “We haven’t had the success against Vernon that we’d like to this season. We’re taking the approach that its a new season, and we know we have to prepare like they haven’t had time off, and they’re going to be a hungry team, so we’ve had a week of high, intense practice so we don’t lose that edge from the Salmon Arm series.”
While Vernon won the season series 5-2, the Smoke Eaters played their best hockey of the year in a first-round series win over Salmon Arm and eliminated the Silverbacks in five games. The Vipers, meanwhile, ‘enjoyed’ a 20-day break after earning a first-round bye for finishing second in the Interior.
No doubt the Vipers are a rested team, but forward Hunter Zandee, in particular, benefitted from the long break, recovering from a low hit that blew out his knee back on Jan. 25.
“That (bye) was a big thing for me,” Zandee told the Vernon Morning Star. “I needed that to get fully healed. It was a long time off and I can’t wait for the playoffs to start.”
The Smokies didn’t come out of the Silverbacks series unscathed with the physical presence of Korbyn Chabot lost for at least the opening two games due to injury, however, previously banged up defenceman Kyle Chernenkoff will be back in the line up tonight.
Story lines abound in the Smokies-Vipers series: Blaine Caton, a Vernon native who played for the 2014-15 Vipers, came to Trail last year and put up 33 points this season, proving a crucial addition to the Smokies lineup.
“I have a lot of family and friends out to the game so that will be nice,” said Caton. “I’m definitely familiar with a couple guys there. I played with a few of them while I was there and then I know some of the recruits through playing against them in minor hockey.”
A sibling rivalry will also highlight the tilt with Trail defenceman Mitch Stapley going head-to-head against brother Brett. But arguably, the player everyone will be watching is former Smoke Eater and Trail native Riley Brandt, whose intense and physical style ignites the Vipers and delights their fans. Brandt suffered a 10-game suspension earlier in the season, and was out for over a month with injury, but returns to the lineup eager to resume action against his former team.
“It will be interesting and a lot of fun since I’ve got lots of family and friends coming from Trail,” the Vipers captain told the Morning Star. “Brown-Maloski is their captain and he just won the player-of-the-week and they’ve got a couple of good lines and some good puck-moving defencemen with some skill in Lucchini and Stapley. They’re not an overly big team but they’re aggressive.”
For Keith, maintaining discipline will be a major factor if the Smokies hope to reduce the impact of Brandt’s game.
“We have to play against him as we would anyone else and not let him be a distraction. Keep him off the score sheet, and try to minimize his dominance when he plays physical and tries to take over games, we have to minimize that as much as we can.”
The Vipers are led up front by Steven Jandric (27-24-51), Brett Stapley (16-34-50) and Jimmy Lambert (19-28-47), with a solid backend and one of the league’s best goaltending tandems in Darion Hanson (1.84 GAA, and .945 save percentage) and Ty Taylor (2.96 GAA).
“When you look at their scoring, they don’t have a lot of guys that are over a point a game, that’s because they’re very unselfish, team-focus first mindset and it reflects on their record,” said Keith. “You can’t really look at their points and think they don’t have the fire power, because they score when they need to score and defend really well.”
The Smoke Eaters will try to keep the opening-series momentum going as the top two lines of Luke Santerno, Kale Howarth, and Josh Laframboise, and Connor-Brown Maloski, Ross Armour, and Mitchell Barker combined for 38 points in five games against the ‘Backs. The Smokies also put forth a solid defensive performance, with smooth-skating play-maker and d-man Carter Cochrane leading playoff scorers with 10 assists and 12 points in the first round. Gutsy efforts from Ethan Martini, Chernenkoff, Troy Ring, Stapley, and Lucchini, whose hit on the Silverbacks forward turned Game 5 around for the Smokies, were critical in the ‘Backs series.
“We are a confident group coming out of round one with that five-game series against Salmon Arm,” said Caton. “But we know this is going to be a pretty big battle for us, and for them as well. It will be a long series, I think we know that, but we’re definitely confident.”
The semifinal is another new season and, the Vipers, a very different opponent for Trail. The match up sees two fast teams grinding out every game, but defence and goaltending may prove the difference. Trail will look to Linden Marshall and Zach Dyment to come up big between the pipes if the orange and black hope to vie for its first ever berth into the Interior Division final.
“Goals are going to be well earned,” said Keith. “It’s going to be a true playoff-style series and we can’t expect that the same effort we gave against Salmon Arm will give us success against Vernon, everything has to be amped up.”
The Smoke Eaters play Game 1 and 2 in Vernon on Friday and Saturday and return to Trail on Monday and Tuesday for Games 3 and 4 with the puck drop at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.